Berkeley Reparations Process Must Work to Counter Systemic Racism in Schools

On March 22, Ben Bartlett, a Black Berkeley resident and city council member, initiated the first formal step in issuing reparations to Black residents in the city of Berkeley.

On March 22, Ben Bartlett, a Black Berkeley resident and city council member, initiated the first formal step in issuing reparations to Black residents in the city of Berkeley. This first step comes in a now approved proposal for the city to spend $350,000 on hiring a consultant who will directly engage with Black citizens to develop policy recommendations. 

Berkeley’s Black residents have demanded formal compensation for slavery and years of institutional racism, with these sentiments dating all the way back to the days of the Civil War. Bartlett’s plan is an important step in achieving equity for Black citizens, but it’s important for the city to consider reparations for Black students as well in order to counter the educational inequities within Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). From Black students in BUSD being flagged as “needing urgent intervention” in STAR reading tests, to being sorely underrepresented in advanced math courses at Berkeley High School (BHS), the implications of systemic racism in BUSD are abundantly clear. 

At first glance, reparations may seem like the city of Berkeley simply handing out money with no further action. While this is an important part of the reparations process, as it provides direct compensation, it’s important to ensure that this form of reparations doesn’t allow the government to continue business as usual. There is also a need to address the root of the issues Berkeley’s Black residents face and create long lasting systemic and societal change. 

A key way to create deep-rooted change is in the field of education. The National Report Card from 1992 to 2019 showed that only 15 percent of Black students were proficient in reading, and only 13 percent were proficient in math. 

The process of reparations proposed by Bartlett aims to avoid the issue of money not being put to good use. This plan enforces recognition and accountability for the injustices committed by the City of Berkeley against Black citizens. It also funds education in support of Black students. 

Bartlett describes his plan for reparations as reminiscent of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa at the end of Apartheid. This model aims to do more than put money in the pockets of the afflicted, although this remains one of the primary goals of reparations. As said by BUSD School Board Director Laura Babitt, “What we’ve found is that even with government funds created to adjust equity gaps for Black and brown students, systemic racism still impacted the delivery of those additional services.” 

Babitt believes that reparations should go directly into the pockets of families, so that they can choose how to spend the money. This money could go towards freeing children from the obligation of working, as Babitt proposed.

We have not solved racism and implicit bias in BUSD. So often, when we give more money to the district, we’re just giving money into the hands of people who don’t understand how to solve the problem,” Babitt said. It’s clear that allowing Black families to decide how reparative funds are used is an important part of ensuring that the money isn’t co-opted. However, as Babitt points out, the systemic racism within governing bodies is also a major issue that interferes with the reparations process. 

Bartlett’s model strives to create a community dialogue where Black residents can share their experiences in Berkeley. Conferences will also include presentations by experts, outlining the ways slavery and institutional racism have affected Black Americans for generations. 

However, for these reparations to truly be a valuable use of money, time, and resources, they must address the effects of racism that go beyond social aspects. Systemic racism is integrated into political systems, and as such, the City of Berkeley should not just compensate its Black citizens financially, but also hold itself accountable.

The call for reparations for Black citizens is nothing new. When it comes to educational opportunities for Black students, reparations could be a way to make up for the generational wealth that runs in many white families. 

Babitt said that for Black students, “means of accumulating wealth have been cut off. You could have been an engineer in Africa, but when you come to America, all you can be is a janitor. That’s part of why there’s such a wealth gap today which impacts race relations in many ways.” Babitt continued, “[Recognizing] how slavery and redlining have impacted us all is an important step in understanding why reparations are needed and should be included in more holistic curriculums of systemic racism.”

Bartlett’s program has had a promising start thus far. That being said, it is imperative to keep Black community members at the forefront of this process, as only the afflicted can truly know the compensation they deserve. 

The economic disparity between Black and white citizens has only grown since the creation of this country, but a hope for equity comes in the form of providing reparations, which are long overdue. 

As Bartlett said in a statement, “Our children demand change. This legislation presents a framework to take us beyond reaction and into true repair, of the person, the community and the nation.” Here, Bartlett acknowledges the importance of centering reparations around the future generations of Berkeley’s Black residents in order to truly counter a history of intense systemic inequality in Berkeley and beyond.