The educational debt owed to Black Americans increases exponentially with every civil rights Supreme Court ruling that goes unrealized—each piece of legislation that allows Black children to languish in Jim Crow-era school environments, and every color blind policy that ignores the persistent racial disparities in the academic outcomes between Black students and white students.
Hundreds of years ago, the educational debt began when the federal government denied generations of Black children the right to read—first to maintain the institution of slavery and then to preserve a racist social structure. However, unlike the National Debt ceiling crisis, there is no public outrage or bipartisan debate around paying the Black educational debt, arguably America’s oldest and largest debt. America can begin to repay its educational and moral debt to the Black community through reading reparations. The right to read.
Black literacy threatened the “race” economy, which relied on enslaved dependency as the primary source of labor. Laws such as the slave codes in South Carolina in 1740 and Virginia in 1819 outlawed the teaching of reading and writing to any mulatto, freed or enslaved negro. The slave codes were not the first Black anti-literacy laws, nor were these laws the most egregious. However, these codes are representative of the government’s role in the slave economy, and why state and federal governments are equally accountable for the social and academic outcomes the Black community faces today. Our Founding Fathers knew then what we all know now: Literacy is the foundation for the meaningful development of any nation.
The effects of Black anti-literacy laws continue to reverberate throughout school districts nationwide. The 2022 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) data reported that Black fourth-grade students trailed behind their white peers by 13% in reading. In 2019, pre-Covid, the difference in reading performance between Black and white students on the NAEP was 12%. This suggests the effects of the pandemic had minimal impact on Black fourth graders who took the NAEP.
Contrary to what people may think, the gap in achievement between Black and white students does not just grow over years of schooling. Black students are not falling behind because of childhood trauma or the lack of intellectual ability. Across the country, most Black children are entering school and not meeting school readiness standards because they lack the social capital, that is, opportunities to access networks, relationships, and resources, available to their white counterparts.
Early childhood research found that a child’s readiness level can significantly impact everything from grade-level reading to graduating high school and getting a job. The Illinois KIDS assessment determines four- and five-year-olds’ level of readiness to begin school. The 2019-2020 KIDS data showed that 42% of Black children entering kindergarten met the school readiness standards compared to 56% of white children. These numbers are not new; for years, researchers have documented the effects of the lack of social capital on a child’s level of preparedness when starting school. Under-resourced schools compound the lack of social capital.
The educational debt would best be repaid in the form of reading reparations that disrupt the secretly held assumption that educational outcomes for black children are a function of race. America can lead on the global disruptor stage on two fronts: By providing reparations recognizing the harm, and by fully funding early childhood literacy centers in black neighborhoods focusing on the economic outcomes of the investment.
Reading reparations for Black children in early childhood eliminates the argument about who should receive reparations. Any person whose ancestors were denied the right to read, per the slave codes, and who resides in a neighborhood that has been historically disinvested (i.e. redlining, white flight, etc.) would qualify to enroll their child in the right-to-read early childhood program. The mission would be to afford Black children the same experiences and opportunities as their more affluent peers. Opportunities their parents and communities have not been able to provide as a result of 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, and 60 years of separate but equal.
Fully funding high-quality early childhood literacy centers in black neighborhoods, paired with the clearly articulated expected outcomes would improve other social metrics Blacks persistently lag in. The illiteracy rate has undoubtedly had catastrophic economic consequences for the Black community impairing their ability to contribute to their community. Therefore, increasing the literacy rate in the Black community will increase the number of Blacks entering the workforce. Blacks would have increased access to career, business, and upward mobility information.
Preparing our future workforce benefits individuals, families, and our nation’s economy. Had we closed the academic performance gaps between Black and Hispanic students in 2008, the United States would have gained between $310 billion and $525 billion in gross domestic product. Imagine the total gain today and how those gains would impact the national debt crisis.
The world has had a front-seat view of Black potential when “opportunity” is available. Look at the countless successful Black athletes, musicians, artists, and singers. Although barriers presented themselves, there was no affirmative action, many surpassing their white counterparts despite growing up in the harshest conditions and, in many instances, having no formal training. They become world-class musicians or athletes.
No affirmative action, just opportunity.