Saturday, November 28, 2015

Reparations For Better Education

When considering points 2, 4 and 5 of the Black Panther Ten Point platform—the demand for full employment, decent housing, and education that “teaches us our true history,” I believe these demands are as important today as they were 50 years ago. In fact, the problems have gotten worse. While we’d probably need some new strategies to achieve them, the Panthers did provide a template and a model that can be useful in addressing the governmental and non-governmental sanctioned racist policies engulfing our society today. It’s difficult to consider these demands without also considering #3, the demand for reparations, which may be the essential economic fuel that would allow the black community today to achieve the goals of full employment, adequate housing, and true education.
As Ta Nehisi Coates, in “The Case For Reparations,” and others have argued, we cannot understand today’s inequality without acknowledging the deep self-perpetuating schism created by the institution of slavery. If the legacy of slavery and its continued existence under more benign names is not actively confronted on a systematic level, we have no hope of an equitable society. A payment of reparations would be one way to address this, even if it doesn’t exist in a vacuum and won’t be enough to pay for all the damage done to people’s souls.
One of my students’ asks, how could a one-time payment of reparations do any good? From his perspective, a one-time payment of reparations seems like a kind of tax-refund, quickly spent on some basic needs and certainly not enough to help build a community, create institutions that can educate, entertain, employ, and fuel self-determination (kujichagulia) or at the very least a solid foundation for black capitalism. Yet the Black Panthers clearly did not think of reparations as my student does; they thought of it as investment capital, the long-deferred start-up capital that was the broken promise made 100 years before them that would have to be fulfilled to heal the schism, and allow people who were property to make the transition to being able to own property to the extent whites could.
The Panthers were well aware of how government funding, grants and loans given to others have been denied black folks, and that this inheritance can compound economic disparity with every generation in a society in which “You need to have money to make more money,” but they also believed in people power, in the strength of the masses to equal the money of the few, and their success teaches us that it could be done again, and possibly better.

Though some dismiss the demand for reparations (#3) as unrealistic and as destined to lose the propaganda battle, let’s suspend skepticism for a second and assume that the government would actually be willing to grant a large sum of reparations that would be agreed upon as fair by the majority of the black community. The hypothetical question then becomes logistical; how would this money be “distributed to our many communities?”

First, it’s important to understand that the Panthers do not say the money would be distributed to individuals, but to the communities. This is an important distinction, and it can help do away with any possible petty competition that could occur within the black community between people who have clear documented evidence of their ancestors having been slaves on plantations and others who can’t, but rather emphasize the common good. A student asks, but wouldn’t the money eventually have to trickle down to individuals? Not necessarily. One could imagine a community owned bank that would offer loans to worker-owned collectives that could provide the means for achieving the other collective demands.

The Panthers showed examples of how this could be done, even without the payment of reparations (“act like you already have money, that way, if you get it, you’ll know what to do with it”). Although the Panthers are not known for their boycotts as much as the SCLC in Montgomery, or San Francisco CORE’S “Don’t shop where you can’t work” campaign, they understood that boycotts could be a very effective tool to get the white businessman and government to remove legal obstacles in the way to building a solid foundation for black capitalism and a black community that could be at least as economically and culturally self-sustaining as the Mexicans and the Chinese had (with their connection with their native lands not being as thoroughly severed as the African-Americans’ had been), if not as much as whites had (though that was the hope).

The Panthers also showed how boycotts can be used within the black community to help create the community, to teach and goad people to think more in terms of “we” rather than “me.” Can some of their uses of boycotts—their understanding of realpolitik-- be useful tools for community organizing today?

The Black Panthers were a respected organization in the Black Community. They had shown that they would stand up for the collective against the common enemy, so people would listen to them. For example, some black owned local independent retail businesses—so-called “liquor stores” though they also sold food—were unsuccessfully negotiating with the (colonizer’s) government to get a license for cognac. The fact that they were denied licenses in contrast to the white owned retailers drove many black consumers of cognac to give their money to white-run businesses at the expense of these black-owned businesses. So the Panthers organized a successful boycott of the white-owned liquor wholesale distributors. Once the bigger white-owned distributors saw their own businesses suffering, they stopped lobbying the government to deny the black owned businesses their licenses. The laws soon changed.

Because of this, the liquor stores now owed the Panthers something. So when the Panthers asked the liquor stores to donate food to their schools and breakfast programs, and the stores refused to donate food (though they offered a one-time $500 payment, which the Panthers wisely refused), the Panthers boycotted the stores, “closed them down, negotiated with them,” as David Hilliard continues: “we finally had all of these black businessmen sit down at a table and decide they were going to support the community. This is what made us more powerful than most groups imaginable.” (quoted in Reed, 133)

It’s important to note that the money and food was going towards the schools. Their schools themselves were negotiating tools as much as model schools. The Panthers’ Schools, like the Oakland Community Learning Center, strove to create and encourage a more holistic, interdisciplinary educational environment that allowed a more fluid ability to move between various specialized disciplines and professions, in contrast to the standard hierarchy established by the white education system between the so-called “skilled” (higher paying, white collar) and “unskilled” (lower paying, blue collar) jobs, a hierarchy that was and is used by the capitalist class to divide and conquer working class solidarity, and help split the black community---especially once the factories started leaving America and college became less of a choice, but more of a necessity as many who would have preferred to be blue collar (if not “unskilled”) workers now tried to go to college because the corporate and “liberal” media told them it’s the only way to rise up. For some, it was, but for others, it certainly wasn’t.

The Panthers’ community schools, as well as the collegiate ethnic studies programs their efforts helped create, were set up to address the economic backdrop (context) of the real (adult) world in which education takes place. Today, we may need this even more, in light of the changes that have occurred to both K-12 schools and colleges since 1966. In California, for instance, after Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, public funding was severely cut to K-12 schools and after school programs. Meanwhile, the federal student loan initiatives, which were sold to the public as a way to remove economic obstacles to a college education, had the effect of raising college tuitions and handing over the education system to an increasingly de-regulated banking industry. As a result of these economic policies, the segregation and miseducation that the Panthers fought against is even worse today, especially given the devaluation of the college degree in today’s job market.

The high costs (and swelling ranks of bureaucratic “human resources” middlemen) of college remains a large obstacle. Some argue that the prices of college rose as part of a policy purposely designed out of fear of the power of the educated populace that more affordable access to state schools had encouraged, and indeed think tanks like the Tri-Lateral Commission did arise in response, and reaction, to the Panthers’ (and others) demand for a more inclusive education. The higher tuitions were ultimately a more effective form of segregation than blatant segregation was; sure, more people could now go to college, but only if they took out debilitating loans that would in many cases require years of indentured servitude to pay back. The proof is in the pudding; compare the population of black students at SF State and UC Berkeley 50 years ago with today and you’ll see the racist consequences of this system.

Given this, we may need to add the word “Affordable” to update the Panthers demand for education, just in case anybody thinks this wasn’t implied in the Panthers’ original demands, and the actions they took to try to achieve them. Of course, more money has to be allocated for education. Class sizes need to be smaller, even if that seems to hurt the short-term fiscal bottom line (there are ways to make it pay for itself, at the very least).
Yet, the problem is not strictly due to economics, but also to the ideology of de jure (if not de facto) integration, the so-called color-blindness of the ‘post-racial’ society. Today, many schools are still segregated, but even those which get called “integrated” schools, which black students are now able to attend alongside white students, are not necessarily an improvement over the clearly underfunded black run schools in the “separate but (un)equal” days before the Supreme Court Brown V. The Board of Education decision of 1954.
As Gil Scott Heron points out in his memoir, as a child in the early 1960s, and one of the first blacks to be promoted to the “integrated” or desegregating schools, he learned early on that these schools were in many ways worse than the segregated schools. In the poorer black schools, he was taught about the Civil War from the perspective of the slaves, in the “integrated” schools, he was taught the Civil War from the point of view of the slave owners of the Confederacy.
Since the Panthers emerged 12 years after this Supreme Court decision during the height of the “integrated schools” craze (or I should say war), it’s important to see their demand as a response, or even a reaction, to this superficial sense of “integration” and diversity which hold black students to “white” standards that fail to recognize cultural differences.
The Panthers knew they could do a better job of educating their children than the white schools because many of them had seen and experienced how black run schools—even those severely underfunded in the era of legal segregation—did. This does not mean that the Panthers wanted to go back to the “good old days” of Jim Crow; they knew that segregated schools still placed you under the jurisdiction of the colonizer, but they did believe that a strategic separation from the “integrated” schools would allow them to bargain for control of the curriculum from a position of strength, as they worked both within the system and outside it. As Malcolm X had pointed out, the white power structure is much more afraid of blacks separating and running their own schools than it is of integrating the school which is still within its jurisdiction, so, if you threaten to separate, you have more of a chance of true integration than if you go begging for it.
If the reparations had been granted, the Panthers would have been able to accomplish much more in the educational field, yet the fact that they were able to create, from a grassroots level, schools that served the underserved as well as they did attests to their economic ingenuity, in making a little go along away, and understanding the slogan “strength in numbers” in more expansive ways than the Oakland (Sic) Warriors. Today, people like Ras Baraka, the current mayor of Newark, NJ, have taken up the Panthers’ unfinished business in fighting to regain community control of the K-12 curriculum in public schools back from the state and the Zuckerberg funded privatization plans that benefit chain charter schools whose model of education is a diluted and bastardized version of the Panther’s schools.
On a college level, it is also worth noting that many of the student protests that have come to national attention in the wake of Mizzou’s football team’s walk out in the past month are demanding the same thing the Panthers did. Although I am white, it makes sense to me that blacks would do a better job of educating their youth than whites would, yet many whites disagree (or get defensive if the subject is even brought up). I’d go further and argue that blacks may also do a better job of educating white youth (as well as adult classes) than whites do. That can make whites even more defensive, but I am driven to want to do my best to stand in solidarity with those (at Mizzou and elsewhere) who demand at least one mandatory diversity course taught by a non-white. I believe that should be standard curriculum at any university, college and, earlier, in K-12 schools—even if the school has only a 4% black population like the City of San Francisco.
More to the point, I’d join the fight for more than one mandatory diversity course, just like we have more than one mandatory English course. I also challenge college administrations to consider overt and covert biases in student placement, so that schools have at least 12% black students and situations that force black students to be the one “token” in a class of 30 can be avoided.
I also believe that many of my college students would be better teachers of K-12 kids than I could—even those in “pre-transfer” level courses have valuable things to teach the younger--and that there should be opportunities for these college students to go into the public schools (as teaching assistants or affordable guest speakers) for experience that could empower them as well as the 6th graders.
I also challenge any school administration that argues that if the school only has 7% black students that therefore it should have only—at best-- 7% black faculty to consider the strong possibility that more of your black faculty have a more acute understanding of American history and contemporary culture than your white faculty does, and that hiring more black faculty would enhance the scholarly reputation of your university if truth be told.
Perhaps this analogy may persuade some of you. Consider the music industry, which may be seen as another pedagogical arena in which black cultural workers have found employment ever since the invention of radio and records (with their peculiar ability to cross the color line) a century ago. Indeed, a wop bop a loup bop a bop bam boop is as pedagogical as the contemporaneous novels by James Baldwin or Gwendolyn Brooks. And, in recorded and broadcast “entertainment” media, it became clear by 1970 (if not before) that many more whites consumed the music made by blacks than their percentage of the population, or the producers.
White America, almost despite itself, was hungry for black wisdom, for black rhythm and deep thought. Roughly 12% of the population has created at least 40% of the wealth made by the music industry for a long time now (not that blacks have ever received their fair share of the wealth they create, which is the perennial experience of the Black man and woman in America, though they may trot out a Jay-Z or Dr. Dre to try to dispute this claim).
African-Americans have earned this wealth by actually creating a larger audience for mass-cultural electronic media music, and if there were more black professors in college, I believe we could seduce more black students to enroll (especially if we could lower the prices for schools), and include the vigorous civic community service component (which Nathan Hare called for in his proposal for the nation’s first Ethnic Studies program) that could reground education outside the ivory tower. It may even be able to go-toe-to-toe with Hollywood and Silicon Valley who have a heard start on (mis)educating our youth under the more effective guise of mere entertainment.
American musical pop culture of the last 50 years is roughly 40% black; though this is not exactly integrated, the American education system (often labeled by detractors and proponents as more “liberal” than the corporate media is) is even less so. This can be seen in the fact that the department I teach in is still called an English, rather than American, department; that is not a merely syntactic distinction, but explains the absence of required ‘diversity’ classes (for from the perspective of English, “American” means diversity, in the pejorative sense).
It’s been said that the most segregated moment of American life occurs on Sunday morning as seen and experienced in the difference between the White Christian Church and the Black Christian Church, and the fact that the latter has much more in common with black secular institutions than it does with the similarly named white sacred institution, or than the white church has in common with white secular institutions against the backdrop of separation of Church and State, if not separation of Hollywood and State. I’m not denying there aren’t various shades of multi-racial churches, and cultural “miscegenation,” but this general cultural segregation and/or separation remains a significant factor today.
Likewise, the extreme cultural differences between The Black Arts tradition and the European “enlightenment” tradition is analogous to the differences in churches as well as the differences between “white music” and “black music.” More mixing has been allowed to occur in the history of American music (and the church) than has ever been achieved in Academia. Academia lags far behind; it had a chance and came closer in the late 1960s and early 1970s largely due to the efforts of the Black Panthers before reactive forces of Literary agoraphobia soon coopted it.
In 2015, Academia still has not had its 1920s “Charleston” moment, or its 50s rhythm and blues or 80s hip-hop movements. We haven’t seen the academic walls let down their guard enough so that blacks have the opportunity to seduce the white “gatekeepers” on their own terms. To ask for this is not to cry for a “hand-out;” some may, despite themselves, dance to “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing (open up the door, I’ll get it myself).” I, for one, wish to see that door swing wide open, and have more faith that the discussions that can be aired out will provide a more equitable society (and help whites realize that what they thought they were protecting, what they had acclimated themselves to, if it’s called “privilege,” is also a “prison”).
Since the Black Arts traditions reject the hierarchical distinction between “high” or “fine” art and popular or populist (and practical, collective) art that the white education system clings to, increasing the influence of such perspectives in the college “liberal arts” curriculum could save it from itself, from its self-defeating economy of exclusionism, and attract more students, more consumers, and create more need for the kind of intellectual wares produced in college (or by post-grads).
Ultimately, I see a strong continuity between the Panther’s educational demands and those of the ongoing student protests today, yet while the Panthers are still more known for their show of black power in the form of armed militias, Mizzou students (under organizational names such as #RacismLivesHere and #Concerned Student1950) found a catalyst for their movements in the show of collective economic power in the form of the football player boycott (which may, with equal accuracy, be called a strike, or even a slave rebellion). As one commentator put it, on Democracy Now, “this is the first time you’ve seen a living, breathing connection between a football team and a campus movement. And I think what it does is it lays a handbook, really, for campus activists around the country, particularly at these big state schools, to say, "Let’s talk to the athletes. Let’s not see them as living in this separate space. Let’s actually try to connect with them. Let’s hear their grievances and see if they’re willing to hear ours, as well."
It’s still too early to tell whether this movement can achieve lasting influence on academic curriculum to create racial equity, and Danny Glover (in a recent speech in honor of the longest student strike in history that resulted in the formation of the nation’s first College of Ethnic Studies in 1969) warns that the challenge facing this movement, as in the past, is the forces that seek to remove its radicalness, and appease it. In the meantime Mizzou is right to call for expanded counseling support, as well as also internships/practicums and community service that make “giving back to the community” part of the requirement of enrollment in a community college, and earning class credits and essential resume lines and connections in the process.
Thus the demand for education cannot be separated from the demands for full-employment, and start-up capital that can be justified as the overdue payment of reparations, but need not be. But I’ll defer to the young black folks making demands across the country as we speak, and I not only defend their decision to create a safe space with No Whites Allowed (and black student unions with teeth, or, better, claws), but embrace it. It’s precisely what’s needed for a more equitable society that could bring democracy to the USA.                                                 

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