Reparations: What the Education Gospel Cannot Fix

I promise you I don’t know Coates from Adam’s cousin Leroy. I stopped attending the Thursday night Black People Meetings ™ ages ago when gas crossed $2 a gallon. But, I know that Coates has written a thing at The Atlantic making the case for reparations.

This is good.

When I teach my inequality course to undergraduates, I spend a lot of time on periods of wealth creation in U.S. history and how fundamental enslaved labor was to its distribution. Even my econ majors tend to walk away saying there’s really no redress for inequality that does not begin and end with wealth redistribution. The issue is almost never if reparations is a solution but only if it’s a solution white folks can live with. So, there’s that.

I like Coates’ addendum on his blog. He gives some love to the academics and teachers who slog through survey courses that likely end with many of the conclusions drawn by my students: absent the application of power to the foundation of class, there is no racial justice or equality. I like it when teachers get some love.

I like it because I identify as a teacher and also because I’m a bit of an education zealot. I’ve talked about how fundamental public libraries and teachers and those annual scholastic book ordering drives were to my childhood. Vivian liked to say that if They have put it in a book, then I should be able to figure out how to do it. And so the mantra for my life’s story, should it ever be worth writing, will be, “LOOK IT UP!” because that’s what Vivian screamed every time I started playing 100 questions with her.

Because education seems to have worked out fairly well for me and because I am not shy about stanning for librarians on social media, people are often surprised by my explicit political position that education is not and should not be a social policy solution to inequality. I do not think that higher education “access” is that laudable of a goal. I am mostly uninterested in political rhetoric about education being the “new” civil rights movement. I do not think that narrowly focusing on college completion is a particularly good thing. I’m a heretic about almost every fundamental populist education belief we’ve got.

Again, it confuses people. I have said I might get around to shedding some light on that. This isn’t exactly that but it is a start.

As the world was waiting for Coates’ case for reparations, Janelle Jones and John Schmitt at the Center for Economic Policy Research were releasing a policy paper on black college graduates and the labor market. In “A College Degree is No Guarantee”, Jones and Schmitt examine the labor market conditions for black college degree holders pre and post Great Recession.

Their findings are only a surprise to those who ain’t living it.

Jones and Schmitt essentially put forth a forensic accounting of every knee-jerk ideological inequality policy prescription that too often asks of education what education simply cannot do.

When you start talking about poverty and race, inevitably most folks fall back on the usual tropes: blacks should care more about school, go to college, increase their graduation rates, choose the right majors.

Jones and Schmitt’s report looks at black folks who have done exactly that, all of it. They cared enough about school to graduate, go to college, complete a four-year degree and stay in step with their non-black age cohort members (they focus on graduates ages 22-27). A few key findings:

–  In 2013 (the most recent full year of data available), 12.4 percent of black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed. For all college graduates in the same age range, the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent.
–  Between 2007 (immediately before the Great Recession) and 2013, the unemployment rate for black recent college graduates nearly tripled (up 7.8 percentage points from 4.6 percent in 2007).
–  In 2013, more than half (55.9 percent) of employed black recent college graduates were “underemployed” –defined as working in an occupation that typically does not require a four-year college degree. Even before the Great Recession, almost half of black recent graduates were underemployed (45.0 percent in 2007).
–   Black recent college graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors have fared somewhat better, but still suffer from high unemployment and underemployment rates. For example, for the years 2010 to 2012, among black recent graduates with degrees in engineering, the average unemployment rate was 10 percent and the underemployment rate was 32 percent.

No matter what black college grads do, they are more sensitive than non-blacks to every negative macro labor market trend. They are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and hold low quality jobs even when they have STEM degrees. I point out that last bit because apparently STEM will save us all or something.

How can I revere education as I do and refuse to accept it as the gospel that will save us from persistent, intractable inequality?

It is precisely because I revere education – formal and informal – that I refuse to sell it as a cure for all that ails us.

Degrees cannot fix the cumulative effect of structural racism that doesn’t just reinforce the link between family wealth and returns to educational attainment in the labor market but exists as a primary function of that link.

Reparations can.

When we allow education to be sold as a fix for wealth inequality, we set a public good up to fail and black folks that do everything “right” to take the blame when it goes “wrong”.

Even if you have taught enough survey courses to fill a boat with graded assignments, if you truly care about education then you might care about the debate happening right now because Coates wrote a thing.


21 thoughts on “Reparations: What the Education Gospel Cannot Fix

  1. I completely agree with your assessment; reparations however cannot be the only solution. An inclusive movement within the normal community at every level of society needs to be envisioned and implemented.

  2. 100% agree. Matt Bruenig has made this point well in his work: in the past 40 years, we’ve tripled overall college attainment. In that same time, income inequality has skyrocketed, real incomes have stagnated, poverty rates haven’t budged, and the white-black income gap has actually grown. In contrast, look at a program like Social Security: we cut checks for the elderly, and elderly poverty plunged. Giving people money works.

    It’s time to stop pretending that education can solve our economic injustices and do what we know works. The sensible and direct way to end the black-white wealth gap is to give black Americans reparations.

  3. Education for African Americans can’t fix the biases and predatory behaviors and cultural pathologization inflicted by white people. Education of white people, on the other hand, might do some good. Coates argument ends with calling for historical and social investigation, discussion, broader understanding of the lived experience of Black folks: Education.

  4. I’m afraid a lot of the wealth today is still the result of slave labour. The multinationals have a lot to answer to this.

  5. I read your articles with great pleasure, they are so thought provoking. You have made me look at my own society in Britain with fresh eyes. Much of what is commonly accepted as the basis for our society, for example, equality of opportunity, cannot make a more egalitarian society, even if the concept became an actual reality. I am white working class and for most of my life believed if I worked hard enough everything would come right. Over the last thirty years there has been a concerted attack on the welfare state, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill and the vulnerable, in order that the super-rich are not asked to pay any more in taxes, or in some cases any tax at all.
    Thank you so much for your wake-up call!

  6. Yes. Excellent analysis. A larger (but no more important question) is whether it makes sense for anyone who does not have family money/connections to make the sacrifices and borrow the money to get a college education–taking the risk that, even when they’ve done everything “right,” it may not pay off & they (and sometimes their parents) are stuck with debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and which, if they cannot pay it on schedule, may ruin their credit and make it difficult for them to get a job or buy a house. Income-based repayment helps, but it is not a law, and that program could disappear at any time. This is an issue for many, many low young people from poor and working class, and, increasingly, middleclass homes.

  7. Thank you so much for writing this! You had me at “Their findings are only a surprise to those who ain’t living it.” A (Black) friend of mine from high school (an elite math and science academy that no one cares I ever attended) posted the article on Facebook yesterday and another (white) classmate asked about STEM careers. I was quick to tell him about the Black engineering graduates I know, including my fiance, who are underemployed. Unable to find work in his field for over a decade, my fiance has decided to go back to school for a Masters. I have worked hard, too, earning 3 degrees in creative fields. But no matter how many times I worked for free as an intern or how hard I worked on resumes and networking, I have not reaped the rewards that I expected to after “investing” in my future by getting so much education. I am glad to see someone in the education field who understands this. And thanks for what you said about STEM fields.

  8. Yes, and — is the ideology elevating higher ed as a force for social and economic mobility not just another chink in the brick wall of a globalized knowledge economy?

  9. Indeed. Also, to the degree that investing in education is going to help redress ongoing racial equality (which, yes, traces quite clearly back to the legacies of slavery and segregation), the investments are going to have to start at the K (pre-K, actually) through 12 level. And that brings us to the way we fund schools in this country (locally, through real estate taxes), which brings us back to where people live/can afford to live (and whether they have time left over after they’ve done their best to supply the basics for their families to deal with the logistics of school “choice,” where available, and so on). A decent education (of whatever sort is appropriate to a particular person’s skills, interests, etc.) should be a right, not a privilege (and shouldn’t be seen, by itself, as a solution to problems which may make getting that education harder, and/or make it harder for a graduate to make the most of hir education, in an economic sense).

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