Reparations and Education Justice

An Interview with Bettina Love

By Cierra Kaler-Jones

Rethinking Schools Executive Director Cierra Kaler-Jones interviewed Bettina Love, author of We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom and Punished for Dreaming: How School Reform Harms Black Children and How We Heal. In Punished for Dreaming, Love details the history of the last 40 years of educational reforms that provide context for the current wave of legislative pushback on social justice education. Love lays bare how reform policies criminalize and punish Black children, and provides a road map for repair and reparations. 

Cierra Kaler-Jones: Can you start by sharing the impetus for your new book? What encouraged you to look at the last 40 years of education reform? 

Bettina Love: I think I’ve been trying to write this book for a very long time. When I was 17 years old, I had a big question that I was seeking to get answered. I’m from Rochester, New York. I go hard for the Roc. I went to a huge vocational high school. I entered my freshman year with 800 students. Four years later, we graduated with just a little bit more than 100.

I remember walking across the stage, my mother and sister cheering, and my friends were there. I walked across the stage and said to myself, “Where the hell did everybody go?” How did we have a 10 percent graduation rate? So, when I decided what I wanted to write my next book about, I remember being 17 and asking the question “Where did everybody go?”

Then, I thought about my generation. I’m part of the hip-hop generation. I’m part of the post-civil rights generation. We’ve told the story of the eighties and nineties in a particular way. We’ve told the story from the war on drugs. We’ve told the story from crack. We’ve told a story from presidents.

But nobody has said, “Well, what about those kids who were educated during that time? What does it mean for a group of kids to be called super predators? Thugs, crack babies? What does it mean for a group of children, a generation of children to be disposed of, and for a country to have the language to dispose of them?”

So we saw our generation, my generation, where crime reform and education reform merged. We had national media that lied to the country. It seemed OK to call a child a super predator. It seemed OK to have zero tolerance in schools. I wanted to tell the story of my generation, the hip-hop generation, and our schooling experience in the eighties and nineties. What I do in the book is I try to use the stories of 25 amazing Black Americans and talk about the ways that policy impacted people’s lives. 

CKJ: That’s powerful. I appreciate how you’re grounding the book in the rich traditions of oral storytelling. What are some of those stories? 

BL: In the book, you’ll meet one of my best friends, Zook, who when she was 11 was body-slammed by a teacher. She was routinely suspended for fighting and skipping school. She was angry because her mother abandoned her at birth for a life of drugs. No teacher or school counselor helped Zook understand her emotions or saw her as a grieving child. She estimates she was suspended two to four weeks out of every year. She was a gifted basketball player, but then local media portrayed her as rarely going to class and said that she shouldn’t be eligible to play because of her GPA. As a result, the school district nullified every winning game Zook played in and kicked her off the team. As I quote her saying in the book, “I felt used. They used me to win games, but they punished me for dreaming that basketball was my ticket out of the hood.” 

I also hope people see my story and my mother’s story in this book. She experienced white rage at school — she was threatened, called the N-word, and other things she wouldn’t speak of. My mother didn’t have any Black teachers until Brown v. Board of Education. Brown gutted Black education in the South. When we talk about what we lost, it’s upwards of 38,000 Black teachers, 90 percent of Black principals in the South. Black teachers begin to come up North. When interviewing her, my mother says, “They are strict as hell, and they could teach, baby.” But even with Black teachers, students and teachers experienced anti-Blackness, overcrowded schools, and substandard conditions. The Brown ruling was supposed to give Black children access to educational opportunity, but my family and friends received the backlash instead. As I write in the book, “Brown incited a loosely coordinated but tightly aligned attack on public education by the right, the far right, White liberals in the North, poor White folx, and the ultrarich. The goal was singular: Undermine public education at every turn and then profit from its demise.” 

Whenever Black folks have made gains, it’s always met with white rage. What Carol Anderson says in her book White Rage is that there is a violence of racism. We saw places like Arkansas close down all schools. We saw schools in Virginia say, “Ain’t nobody going to school. We will close schools down before we allow Black children to learn with white children.” We saw segregation academies and private schools pop up, which the government gave them tax breaks. They start to get organized. They build their own schools. We should talk about what white folks built in response to Brown. They built think tanks, nonprofits, and conglomerates. After Brown, these individuals got very sophisticated and organized, and by the time Reagan takes office, they are a full-fledged machine.

CKJ: Once Reagan takes office, you write about how his administration ushered in the war on children with Nixon’s war on drugs. Can you talk about the intersections of the two? 

BL: In 1971, Nixon declared a war on drugs, which disproportionately incarcerated and targeted Black and Brown people. This set the stage for Reagan. When Reagan was governor of California, he gutted state funding for public education. Then, he ran for president. His educational platform included putting prayer back in school, having vouchers, abolishing the Department of Education, and defunding public education. At that time, A Nation at Risk was already written. That is what the Republicans and the right had already been telling themselves about public education. When Reagan takes office, that report is ready to go. It creates a crisis. Now the country has language that this country’s education system is failing so badly that it has become a national security crisis. 

They start to use this fearmongering language. In 1983, Daryl Gates, who is the police chief during the Rodney King beating, creates the DARE program. This is the same police chief that said Black people have different esophaguses, so it’s OK to put us in the choke hold. He creates a national program that is going to somehow prevent children from doing drugs, and there’s no research about it — just scare tactics. We have now 40 to 45 years of data that shows that the DARE program does not prevent students from doing drugs. We actually have data that says when you are in the DARE program you have a higher tendency to do drugs. But this program has been continuously funded. The program brings police into schools with the message “Officer Friendly.”

Police ask students to snitch on their parents, their community, and promote this binary message that there’s bad and good people. In 1984, the Reagan administration released another report called “Chaos in the Classroom.” They argued that children in schools are so unruly and disorderly that we need police in schools. They don’t explicitly say race, but it’s coded language. Reagan made a link between “failing schools” and “crime-ridden neighborhoods.” 

By 1989, the ideas of Black criminality are everywhere — schools, media, and government reports. You have cops on TV every day. A song that we all know, “Bad boys, bad boys, what you going to do? What you going to do when they come for you?” In 1994, The Bell Curve is released, which basically says that Black people are inherently inferior. In 1996, Hillary Clinton gets on television and calls children “super predators who have no conscience.” All of this leads to what we have today — police in schools and carceral logic. 

CKJ: In the book you write about cosmetic changes touted as justice in schools. What are some examples of cosmetic changes? 

BL: In We Want to Do More than Survive, I wrote about centering abolitionist approaches in education. Since then, abolition has become a buzzword without the courage to actually move beyond reform. For example, police-free schools sounds wonderful. However, we still have what Erica Meiners and Mariame Kaba call a carceral logic or a punishment mindset. Even in the pandemic, when there were no children in school, Black children were suspended. We need to move beyond the carceral logic because we still revert to punishment even when there are no police.

Another example is how we need more counselors, social workers, and psychologists. However, if those individuals are mandatory reporters and those individuals don’t understand the complexities of the communities that they are dealing with, they will do harm, just like the police. We have to be complex and thoughtful and push in the right ways that are dismantling some of these structures and systems in our schools. But we can’t forget about the racism and the anti-Blackness in all of these structures because we know from the child welfare system to social work, to policing to school, all of these things are rooted in anti-Blackness. Just because we remove one, doesn’t mean we are replacing it with love, care, and kindness. We’re just switching the anti-Blackness hats out. 

CKJ:  Your work on abolitionist teaching has been central to my own research, activism, and teaching. Thank you. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, what does it mean to be an abolitionist educator? What does it look like? 

BL: At the core of abolition is to abolish the prison industrial complex. From there, we can talk about schools that are loving and kind and thoughtful and restorative. How you, as an educator, are working daily to undo the harm that you have been taught to do. You are working daily and fumbling, as Mariame Kaba would say. You understand that you are fumbling and you give yourself grace, and take accountability to heal from these oppressive systems. That means healing through therapy, traditional therapy, Indigenous healing practices, or however you’re trying to heal. That’s abolitionist teaching for me. It’s not just you thinking you’re doing the work. You’re in community with folks. Abolition means that we are going to build more than we tear down. We are trying to build with love, thoughtfulness, and kindness. We wanna hold people accountable not in a carceral way, but we gotta hold you accountable for harm. 

Abolitionist teaching tries to get us to take the principles of abolition and bring those to the field of education. We now know from the work of Erica Minor, Dave Stovall, and Dylan Rodriguez that it’s the prison-to-school nexus. There is a carceral inevitability, meaning that the system of punishment is inevitable. It’s all around you. Even if you never are put in some type of confinement, when you walk through the school with dogs and police, when you have the DARE program in your school, when you have cameras everywhere, when you have the Regents exam — which we know that high school exit exams increase your risk of incarceration by 13 percent — it’s inevitable. It’s inevitable the way schools are set up. Even if there’s no police in your school, you’re still testing, even if there’s no police in the school, the way you talk to children can communicate carceral language. 

Abolition asks us to be curious. To stay curious, to ask those questions, to investigate, and to try to understand. 

CKJ: One of the key components of your book is also a road map for repair and reparations. What are some elements of that road map for repair and what would it take to get there? How can educators play a role? 

BL: Before the chapter on reparations, there’s a chapter called “Celebrate Us.” What I argue in that chapter is that before we get to reparations, you gotta see us as human.

What’s repair? The book tries to argue that maybe it’s time that we move from diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I’ve spoken to many DEI professionals. What they say is that in their position, they put out fires. They don’t have funding. They don’t have resources. They don’t have a staff, and they’re here when the fire happens — the racial fire, the equity fire, the fire when somebody says something harmful to trans kids and queer kids.

Now, let’s talk about reparations. The last chapter of the book was written with three other amazing scholars — Hope Wollensack, Shanyce Campbell, and Nzinga Broussard. These women are policymakers and economists. For almost eight months, we met and then we talked to experts in multiple fields, such as reparations and policy. They told us what they thought were the areas that need the most attention in school: curriculum, earnings loss due to reforms, earnings loss due to pushout, school buildings, cops in schools, and suspensions of children. If children are not in the building, then what kind of outcomes do you expect? Hope, Shanyce, and Nzinga created formulas and after the six categories, we had $2 trillion of harm over the last 40 years.

I’ll give you some examples.

A Black boy’s likelihood of graduating increases between 32 percent and 39 percent if they have a Black teacher. If they don’t have any Black teachers, what happens to those students who are pushed out, and who don’t graduate? That means that schools impact a student’s earning potential for the rest of their life if they don’t get a high school diploma. What if we could account for that? That here are, for the last 40 years, these students who did not have any Black teachers, were pushed out of school, and now they did not graduate from high school. This means that they will lose a certain amount of money in their life earning potential.

We can calculate that now.

You also have school buildings in this country that are doing harm to children where there is no clean water and the air is full of pollutants. The AC vac, the furnace, the air, and the air quality coming out is absolutely terrible. We have studies that show that these dilapidated schools are hindering students’ learning. This place where we’re supposed to learn is also the place stopping us from learning and is making my body unhealthy. That’s harm. 

Typically, when we think about reparations, we think about mass incarceration, police brutality, the underfunding of Black businesses, and the denial of home loans and business loans. But what we don’t think about as a lever for reparations is education. I would argue that before you are denied a home loan, before you are denied a business loan, and before your home is devalued, you are educated as a Black person in American schools. 

I do think reparations are coming. Look at California — they’re on the verge of reparations. New York City has a reparations committee. Detroit has a reparations committee. Asheville, North Carolina, has a reparations committee. People are starting to think deeply about harm and how you repair harm.

What I want the book to do is help people realize that compensation is part of reparations and it is an important part of reparations. But the fullness of reparations is to end harm. The fullness is to stop harming people and create a structure that does the least amount of harm to people.

CKJ: I appreciate the way you remind me about the expansiveness of reparations and repair. The way you look at the tangible numbers to turn theory into practice is powerful. With the dangerous legislation that’s moving, the road map that your book offers, and the history that you chronicle, what do you think is the organizing that needs to happen to defeat this era of legislative pushback? 

BL: We have to educate people. And I don’t think we’ve done a good job of educating the public. One of my favorite quotes by Dr. King is that he says policy may not change hearts and minds, but it will change the habits of the heartless. We need policy. But while we’re going for bold policy, we need to educate people because when we don’t educate people, particularly in the United States, fear sets in and we have people who make a living off of misinforming people, misguiding people, and lying to people. 

For example, when there’s a policy on diversity, equity, inclusion, we don’t inform the parents of why it benefits all children, why this is important for democracy, and how this is going to impact your child. Then we allow the boogeyman to come and the boogeyman is going to tell them all types of things that are not true. 

Reparations benefits everyone. We build state-of-the-art schools. That means there’s jobs. That means our public schools are better for all children. Reparations also argues that we hire Black teachers. Your children will benefit from having Black educators in the classroom. Reparations also means that we pay teachers a living wage or above a living wage, meaning that you’ll benefit from that. We have to be clear that yes, Black folks are going to get a portion of these things because they have been harmed, but because we live in a democracy, we live in a world where we are all deeply and profoundly connected.