This is where we educators come in. As is so often the case, social justice movements offer us “teachable moments.” The tumultuous meetings in Durban and the gathering movement for reparations provide just such opportunities to explore the historical impact of racism in our lives.
This can take many forms, and requires analyzing both educational policy and educational practice in the classroom. On a policy level, Gary Orfield’s report on the resegregation of U.S. schools (page 14) offers a sobering look at the modern-day reality of “separate and unequal.” In the classroom, there are various ways to help students understand the still-entrenched reality of racism. Wayne Au, in his article on using the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program (page 21) asks students to develop contemporary agendas for action. First grade teacher Stephanie Walters (page 10) draws on young people’s experiences in the Civil Rights Movement to urge her students to reflect on fairness and activism.
Another educational manifestation of the reparations/rethinking slavery movement has played out in a remarkable drama at Yale University in New Haven, CT. There, on Yale’s 300th anniversary, three graduate students cracked through the Ivy League complacency to underscore that slavery was not just a Southern institution, but was integral to Northern prosperity. The students discovered that eight of Yale’s 12 residential colleges are named after slave owners (including the notorious John C. Calhoun) or those who preached in favor of slavery; the college’s first endowed chair, the Livingstonian Professorship of Divinity, was named for its benefactor, Col. Philip Livingston of New York, one of the most prominent slave traders of the mid 18th century. In putting their own institution under the microscope, the graduate students showed how Yale’s current prosperity owes its existence, at least in part, to the enslavement of African Americans.
K-12 teachers might engage students in similar scholarship, exploring how life in our communities today has been built on foundations of racial exploitation and otherwise celebrates such exploitation.
When calling for reparations, delegates to the World Conference Against Racism linked slavery and colonialism, pointing out that Africa, in particular, was devastated by a system that distorted its development to serve European masters. For example, African railroads were built not to connect Africans with one another, but were constructed strictly from the interior to the sea — to drain the continent of its riches.