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.
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.