The recent revelation that University founder Johns Hopkins — long considered an abolitionist — owned slaves is further evidence that U.S. colleges and universities have atonements to make for the harms of chattel slavery. In fact, N’COBRA (the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) lists the denial of the right to education as one of the five injuries of U.S. slavery.
The debate surrounding slavery reparations predates the Civil War, yet little systemic action has been taken. Reparations advocate, attorney and best-selling author Randall Robinson argues in The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks that this debt has gone unpaid because 246 years of slavery have so normalized white privilege and Black oppression that they have both become invisible.
Unlike many other human rights violations — the Jewish Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide, for example — where survivors were able to re-engage with their former cultures as a part of the healing process, U.S. chattel slavery stripped these cultural roots from Black Americans. “After 380 years of unrelenting psychological abuse,” writes Robinson, “the biggest part of our problem is inside us; in how we have come to see ourselves.”
Sadly, anyone familiar with the “doll studies” in which Black girls say that white dolls are prettier, smarter and better behaved than Black dolls knows that Robinson is spot on.
An opportunity to reconnect
A new law in California which will require students graduating from California State Universities (CSUs) to take a lower division ethnic studies class provides a model for public higher education systems nationwide to create learning experiences that reconnect Black students to a proud African heritage and for non-Black students to learn about systems of oppression and privilege.
Ethnic studies requirements are not new nor are they specific to California or higher education. Nine states have passed laws that in some way address the need for students at various levels to explore the contributions and challenges of marginalized groups.
There are many reasons however why the California law, which in effect puts the onus on community colleges to dramatically increase ethnic studies offerings, makes sense.
Nearly half of students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree get their start at a community college, so policies that require these students to take ethnic studies have the potential to radically transform the way college-educated adults think about race.
Community colleges have proven their ability to quickly develop new courses and programs. There are countless examples of community colleges creating new curriculum — seemingly overnight — in response to the needs of local industry.
These shifts are less feasible for many four-year colleges with long-standing programs and entrenched missions. Institutions that can easily shift focus based on the demands of industry can also make the necessary changes in service to the community.
Starting the process
The diversity and accessibility of the community college system also makes it an ideal setting for the complex work of racial healing. Sixty-nine percent of community college students are students of color, and most Black students get their start in higher education at community colleges. Most community colleges ensure that all students can take courses regardless of their ability to pay.
To be clear, there are a range of disciplines including Native American, Chicanx and Latinx studies that fall under the umbrella of ethnic studies. While the academic study of all of these groups is important, those who advocate for slavery reparations should encourage their local community college to create courses in African-American studies that address the contributions of people of African descent. If Black students are able to connect to a lost history, that itself is a form of reparation.
Since the 1930s, study after study has shown that when Black people have a strong sense of shared history and culture and a strong Black identity, they not only look more favorably on Black people collectively, they tend to have higher self-esteem.
Community colleges are innately linked to their communities and can also create truth and reconciliation committees to look at local impacts of slavery — lynching, for example — that NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn A Ifill has long called for.
Ethnic studies classes are a powerful way for community colleges to right some of the wrongs of slavery, but they are not the only way. With a little creativity, psychology courses can be used to teach students about racialized trauma, students can learn about racialized wealth disparities in economics classes, and even math classes — which have long been a barrier to transfer and graduation — can be taught using African fractals and the principles of ethnomathematics.
The funding issue
To be sure, community colleges are woefully underfunded. Only a fraction of the $149 billion that the federal government allocates for higher education goes to community colleges and a smaller fraction still is allocated to address the needs of marginalized students.
This is a far cry from the $10.7 trillion in reparations called for by economist William A. Darity and former President Barack Obama cautioned against allowing relatively small financial payments to become an “easy out” that negates the need for an acknowledgement of the wrong that was done and the debt that was accrued because of it.
If funding is used intentionally however, community colleges can provide a platform for the individual and collective healing we so desperately need.