The "Monster in the Room": Does Obama Support Reparations?

Updated May 26, 2008: Obama speaks in favor of education-based reparations. See new information at end of this post.

Is the emerging debate about the relationship between Senator Obama and former Weather Underground leader and now Distinguished Professor of Education Bill Ayers simply about the past? 

I believe that that is not the only question at stake – at stake is the possibility that Bill Ayers continues to play a significant role in influencing the candidacy and potentially the presidency of Barack Obama, in particular on vital questions of educational policy. In particular, as this blog post will explain, at least one advisor on education policy to the Obama campaign advocates a form of reparations to black and other minority Americans for hundreds of years of alleged “education debt” owed them by white Americans. And Bill Ayers is an advocate of the same policy.

That history nonetheless deserves full exploration because it lays the ground work for understanding the current Ayers-Obama relationship. Incredibly, however, the MSM continues to ignore the crucial fact that the ties between Ayers and Obama pre-date the November 1995 “meet and greet” held for Obama at the home of Ayers and Dohrn in Hyde Park. 
For example, unnamed “Obama aides” told the New York Times that Obama was “introduced” to Dohrn and Ayers at that event.  Ignore the obvious, of course – would they have agreed to sponsor the event without a prior meeting?  Presumably not.  But the Times refused to follow up even after I alerted the reporter to the fuller story.  In fact, I wrote to another Times reporter, Larry Rohter, who has written on the Ayers links, about the longer term relationship weeks ago.  No reply.
Updated May 26: Obama views education-based reparations favorably. See end of post for new information.
Of course, as I explained in an earlier post here, the link between Obama and Ayers had to pre-date the November 1995 event because Obama was already Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant program.  The Annenberg Challenge was a $50 million grant (to be matched by additional donors 2:1) to a new Chicago non-profit entity to make grants to schools in Chicago.  The grant proposal was conceived of and written by Bill Ayers. Ayers was named Chicago’s “Citizen of the Year” for his efforts.  He was featured on the PBS News Hour to discuss the grant.  In every assessment of the program Ayers was given credit for leading the charge on the program. He began the design of the proposal in late 1993 and the grant was awarded in January 1995.
Thus, it would make sense that the relationship is older than that. Why? There are two related reasons.  
First, the Annenberg Challenge was not a random school improvement effort. The purpose of the Challenge was to help shore up the ongoing reform effort then underway in the Chicago public schools. It was a counter-attack by Ayers in what some commentators called the “Chicago school wars.” The reform effort was floundering and facing increasing opposition from business groups and others.  The reform was built on a 1988 law that imposed “local school councils” (LSC’s) on the school system to create a new power center that would challenge both the Chicago teachers’ unions and the school system administration. Both Ayers and Obama were supporters of these 1988 reforms. (One little discussed fact about the reform effort – when it targeted the union and the school administration, it was taking on two institutions that had been a new and important source of attractive professional jobs for black Chicagoans.)
But it was not clear that the LSC’s were helping students learn more. In 1995 a new law would pass in Springfield re-centralizing power, but this time in the hands of the mayor (Richard Daley) through a new CEO for the school system. This gutted the power of the LSC’s. Bill Ayers opposed this re-centralization (I believe because Ayers saw the LSC’s as a potential means by which to impose his authoritarian “social justice” education agenda).
To lead the Challenge Ayers would certainly have wanted a board chairman who was sympathetic with his goals. That suggests that Obama and he had already established a relationship that convinced Ayers that Obama was the right man for this key leadership role. As I have said here, it is possible Ayers and Obama first met during the campaign for the creation of the LSC’s in the wake of the 1987 teachers’ union strike, an event that galvanized community and business support in Chicago for the LSC idea. Both Ayers and Obama were active in that campaign for the LSC’s.
The second, related reason that I think it likely that the relationship between Ayers and Obama is older than is currently being admitted by the Obama campaign and the MSM, is that Obama in 1994 was only three years out of law school and had only practiced law for about two years. He was still largely an unknown figure on the Chicago political scene. 
True, he did spend the first year out of law school running a very successful voter registration drive that got him some notice among political figures. But despite the notoriety that came with that effort, it would have been a very big leap for a young lawyer to become Board Chairman of the Annenberg Challenge. The board would have had to have helped raise the additional $100 mn that the grant required which meant that connections to wealthy and powerful individuals and corporations would have been required. (By 1999, the Chicago Challenge, indeed, raised some additional $60 mn in matching grants.)
Obama had very few such connections at that point in his career.  In fact, I have suggested that it was the position of chair of the board that actually helped Obama secure those connections (such as to the Pritzker family) that would be so important to his political career. Serving on the board with Obama, for example, were bankers and prominent Chicago figures.  So for Ayers to pick Obama for board Chair really meant that Ayers was helping to give Obama’s career a significant boost.  Why would he do that? Presumably the two had, and have, very similar views on educational policy.
Fast forward, then, to the current scene.  What is the state of Senator Obama’s education policy? No major statement of education policy has been issued by the campaign.  But Senator Obama did name as his education advisor Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, a prominent national figure in education who teaches at Stanford University’s School of Education. Darling-Hammond has not, as far as I can determine, issued any official blueprint or proposal for education policy on behalf of the candidate. However, on April 23 she did issue such a blueprint for an independent entity called the Forum for Education and Democracy (FED). Presumably she had some kind of tacit approval from the Obama camp to go ahead with that very public pronouncement. Thus, it is worth considering that FED blueprint as it may be influential in the thinking of Senator Obama. 
When one does look at the FED blueprint I think we see the shadow of the Ayers’ world view. The blueprint makes four recommendations for federal policy which I will discuss in a moment. 
But the FED argues first for these 4 reforms by contending that the U.S. education system is further behind now than it was in 1983. That seems to me a remarkable statement. I have no problem accepting that for certain segments of our population things have not gotten better and have likely gotten worse when it comes to education (particularly in the inner cities and poor rural areas that have been left behind) over the last 25 years.
But, certainly, it does not take too much effort to recognize that something is also amazingly right about the US education system. How else can one explain the desperate efforts that millions of people around the world make to get into this country, from India, China, Vietnam, Mexico, Ireland, and eastern Europe, from Africa and Latin America?
Just last week I was at an academic conference in southern California. It was held on the Cal State Pomona campus. I had never been there before. It was a remarkably lovely campus situated in the hills of southern California west of Los Angeles. Several new large buildings have been built there recently (including a huge library addition) and they rest side by side with lovely older campus buildings. The students on campus seemed friendly, industrious and happy – it was a classically beautiful warm southern California day.  In the cafeteria I saw one corner where a woman was tutoring another student in calculus while in another corner a group of students were engaged in online games via wireless connections. I am certain that that campus would be the envy of major universities in dozens of other countries, yet in California the state college system is several tiers below the top of what is on offer (like the very top tier: Stanford, where Professor Darling-Hammond has an endowed chair)! That is how deep our educational resources go in this country.
Of course, the FED report is largely aimed at the K-12 system and rightly so since that is where inequities seem the most pressing (although one must ask how bad could K-12 really be if the college system is so robust – after all that robustness depends in part on the quality of the high school students who go to college).  
But at this Cal State Pomona conference I attended a session on “social justice” teaching in K-12. I have blogged on that recently but let me remind my readers of what I saw and heard. One of the panelists was a high school teacher from South El Monte High School in a predominantly lower income hispanic city bordering on Los Angeles.  She brought with her the school’s AP history class.  These 30-40 young people were largely hispanic.  When asked by a panelist how many were likely to attend college, all but 2-3 raised their hands.  When he asked how many had parents who had attended college, only 2-3 raised their hands.  This suggests that working class, probably immigrant, hispanic parents had, in a single generation, found a way to get their children into the finest higher education system in the world. Something must be going right in the K-12 system!
What does the FED report say needs to happen to right the allegedly sinking ship of America’s K-12 schools? Well, back to that four point program:
Priority #1: Repay the “education debt” 
And, what, you might ask, is the “education debt”? According to Professor Darling-Hammond it is a concept invented by Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, of the University of Wisconsin and a “convenor” together with Professor Darling-Hammond of the FED.  It is aimed at replacing the concept that has dominated much education reform discussion in recent years called the “achievement gap.” As Darling-Hammond has written:

“[T]he problem we face is less an ‘achievement gap’ than an educational debt that has accumulated over centuries of denied access to education and employment, reinforced by deepening poverty and resource inequalities in schools. Until American society confronts the accumulated educational debt owed to these students and takes responsibility for the inferior resources they receive, [Gloria] Ladson-Billings argues, children of color and of poverty will continue to be left behind.” (Emphasis added.)

With that reference to centuries of denied access, Darling-Hammond and Ladson-Billings appear to be analogizing their concern about education resources, or the lack thereof, to the demand by some in the black community to reparations for 400 years of slavery and discrimination. In fact, in an article exploring the concept of educational debt (Educational Researcher, Oct. 2006), Ladson-Billings came close to making the analogy explicit:
“What is it that we might owe to citizens who historically have been excluded from social benefits and opportunities? Randall Robinson (2000) states: ‘No nation can enslave a race of people for hundreds of years, set them free bedraggled and penniless, pit them, without assistance in a hostile environment, against privileged victimizers, and then reasonably expect the gap between the heirs of the two groups to narrow. Lines, begun parallel and left alone, can never touch. (p. 74)'”
The book by Randall Robinson to which she refers is The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, which is an extended argument for reparations to be paid by America to blacks for the impact of slavery and discrimination.
Ladson-Billings also made this argument in her Presidential Address to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in 2006.  AERA is in the news lately because Bill Ayers was recently elected as its Vice President of Curriculum Studies. Ladson-Billings is a specialist in “critical race theory” and “culturally relevant pedagogy.”  
Perhaps even more strikingly, Darling-Hammond has argued that there is in America “a growing number of ‘apartheid’ schools that serve racial/ethnic minority students exclusively-schools that have little political clout and are extraordinarily impoverished.”  Presumably it was at an apartheid school that the young hispanic students I encountered at Cal State Pomona figured out how to get into some of the world’s best 4 year colleges. (Emphasis added.)
I want to point out here that I actually believe, as a legal scholar, that there is, in fact, some credible basis to argue that the current black American population, almost all of whom are descendants of slaves, and many of whom continue to suffer from the legacy of that experience as well the many years of discrimination that followed the end of slavery, should receive financial compensation for the impact of that experience. However, the argument faces significant hurdles, some legal, some intellectual and many that are political. 
To transition the argument, as Ayers, Darling-Hammond and Ladson-Billings do, to a call for the repayment of an alleged educational debt, strains credulity if not worse. The logic of the argument itself escapes me. It obviously would not easily apply to many in the school system who suffer the same resource inequities as black students. 
And for Senator Obama to call for such a race-driven approach to a national education policy could potentially unleash a backlash that at a minimum would be a distraction in his campaign but, in the context of his large losses in states like Kentucky and West Virginia together with the Reverend Wright controversy, could very well sink his campaign altogether.
And yet, there was Professor Darling-Hammond, at the same National Press Club venue as Rev. Wright, calling for  – as point number one of a four point plan – repayment of the educational debt. 
And what of the other three points of the FED plan?  Well, of course, 
#2 was a multi billion dollar “Marshall Plan” for our schools (on top of the repayment of the debt?); 
#3 was more money to support research and innovation (hey, who can be against learning more about learning? but there is plenty of doubt about the research methods used by the “social justice” milieu in the education world and for a taste of the problems I highly recommend this book review by Nathan Glazer: The “Crits” Capture Presidential Power: Top education researchers denounce scientific research” Education Next, Winter 2007, a review of a book co-edited by Ladson-Billings with a chapter by Bill Ayers); and, to top it off, 
#4: Engaging and educating local communities (which sounds a lot like the Local Schools reform effort that Obama, Ayers and the Annenberg Challenge tried to save in Chicago).
This suggests to me that some advisors in and around the Obama camp may have their own agendas with respect to education policy, perhaps at odds with the beliefs of the Senator himself, perhaps not. We do not know. But we should certainly ask and the campaign should explain.
And what of the links to Bill Ayers?  Ayers, Darling-Hammond and Ladson-Billings are recognized widely as among the leaders of the “social justice” movement within the world of education schools. Darling-Hammond is co-editor of a volume called Learning to Teach for Social Justice. A chapter called “Education for Democracy” by Darling-Hammond appeared in a volume co-edited by Ayers called A Light in Dark Times
A chapter co-authored by Ladson-Billings on “racing justice” appeared in a book co-edited by Ayers called Teaching for Social Justice: A Democracy and Education Reader. Ladson-Billings wrote the foreword to Ayers’ book,  To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. Ayers and Ladson-Billings are co-editors of City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row just published.  Ladson-Billings contributed a chapter in a book edited by Bill Ayers, Rick Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and Jesse L. Jackson called Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment published in 2001.
On Bill Ayers’ website he has posted a book review by his brother Rick Ayers, who teaches in (where else?) a Berkeley, California public school.  Rick Ayers writes:
“As Wisconsin education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings has pointed out, we should not define the problem as an ‘achievement gap’ as much as an educational debt that has accumulated as a result of centuries of denial of access to education and employment – which is exacerbated by deepening poverty and the lack of funding for schools.”
More fundamentally, Bill Ayers lifelong world view is rooted in what I consider a racialist, if not racist, view of American politics.  He introduced the concept of “white supremacy” as America’s original sin within the new left group SDS as part of his effort, together with his future wife Bernardine Dohrn, to hijack the student-led antiwar movement for his still-to-come terrorist actions as a leader of the Weather Underground.

[I use the first term – racialism – to describe ideas or perspectives that use race-based approaches which I think overstate the race component but that do not really rise to the level of racism. I have a hard time, for example, concluding that someone like Reverend Wright is, at heart, a racist in the sense that, let’s say, George Wallace was. But he certainly uses race in a divisive way that I think overstates the role of race. That is what I consider “racialism” as opposed to racism. There is, of course, the danger that one can go so far in that direction or view the world that way for so long that actual racism takes hold – perhaps Louis Farrakhan is an example, though I do not spend much time paying much attention to him. Maybe one way of getting at this issue is that while a white person can actually show up at the church of Reverend Wright it would not have been possible for a black person to show up at certain churches in the American south in the 1960s and expect to get home safely.]

 Ayers argues that the fundamental issue in American life is “white skin privilege” – that white Americans benefit from being white at the expense of blacks.  This odd concept ignored the ability and interest of elites in stoking up racist attitudes among working class whites in order to manage potential social conflict from below (for an example of the potential of low income whites and blacks to organize together watch The Great Debaters again).  Ayers and others saw blacks as the domestic US equivalent of third world nations in the global scene and argued that whites in the US benefitted from black exploitation much as the maoist movement of which he was a part thought that the nations of the global “north” exploited the nations of the global “south.”

As Ayers’ wife Bernardine Dohrn wrote in the introduction to a 2002 book she co-authored with Ayers and their fellow Weather Underground member Jeff Jones: 
“One cannot talk separately about class, gender, culture, immigration, ethnicity, or biology without being intertwined with race, as Katrina and the systematic destruction of a major black U.S. city reinforms us. We were waking up [in the late 1960s]. What to do once we had knowledge of the dimensions of white skin privilege? How to destroy white supremacy? Well, that is another matter. And as burning today as it was then.”
Ayers himself wrote on his website in a January 19, 2008 essay on school reform:
“The dominant narrative in contemporary school reform is once again focused on exclusion and disadvantage, race and class, black and white. ‘Across the US,’ the National Governor’s Association declared in 2005, ‘a gap in academic achievement persists between minority and disadvantaged students and their white counterparts.’ This is the commonly referenced and popularly understood ‘racial achievement gap,’ and it drives education policy at every level. Interestingly, whether heartfelt or self-satisfied, the narrative never mentions the monster in the room: white supremacy….Gloria Ladson-Billings upends all of this with an elegant reversal: there is no achievement gap, she argues, but actually a glancing reflection of something deeper and more profound—America has a profound education debt. The educational inequities that began with the annihilation of native peoples and the enslavement of Africans, the conquest of the continent and the importation of both free labor and serfs, transformed into apartheid education, something anemic, inferior, inadequate, and oppressive. Over decades and centuries the debt has accumulated and is passed from generation to generation, and it continues to grow and pile up.” (Emphasis added.)
At a certain stage in American history it might have made some kind of desperate sense to make this kind of argument, perhaps prior to 1865 or 1965, but in 2008?  Even then it was possible and there were, as The Great Debaters evokes in its historically based scenes about the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union examples of multi-racial efforts to fight for justice and equality for all Americans.
Of course, today when millions of white workers suffer conditions little different from those of inner city blacks it borders on the absurd to make such an argument. Nor is it clear that throwing more money at our public schools is the real solution. Yet it seems to be the kind of argument that is behind the new race-based approach argued by those in favor of paying off centuries of “educational debt.” The unanswered question today is whether or not Barack Obama subscribes to such a narrow and potentially destructive social perspective.


I thought when I posted my earlier blog The “Monster in the Room” asking whether Obama supported slavery reparations in the form of repaying an alleged “education debt” owed black Americans, I was engaged in trying to connect the dots. I asked whether the appointment of an education advisor who supports that idea meant that Obama, too, supported the problematic proposal.

Turns out, I had the question in the wrong order. Obama has advocated pouring more money into the educational system as a form of reparations and did so before he appointed his current education advisor. I came across this report in the left wing American Prospect today that recounts an exchange Obama had during the South Carolina campaign:

“Last July during the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate, Barack Obama was asked if African Americans would ever receive slavery reparations. Clearly prepared to answer this exact question, Obama responded, ‘I think the reparations we need right here in South Carolina is investment, for example, in our schools.’ The crowd applauded.”

Obama went on to say in that debate:

“I did a town hall meeting in Florence, South Carolina, in an area called the corridor of shame. They’ve got buildings that students are trying to learn in that were built right after the Civil War. And we’ve got teachers who are not trained to teach the subjects they’re teaching and high dropout rates. We’ve got to understand that there are corridors of shame all across the country. And if we make the investments and understand that those are our children, that’s the kind of reparation that are really going to make a difference in America right now.”

The author of the American Prospect piece makes two important points: 1) some advocates of reparations are using the idea of pouring more money into troubled schools as a form of more acceptable “reparations” rather than outright payments to descendants of slaves; 2) randomly dumping money into urban schools is hardly a panacea without larger social restructuring, including integration.

Integration, for example, is not one of the four top priorities the Forum for Education and Democracy advocates for the federal government to pursue in a report it published that was co-authored by Obama’s education advisor, Linda Darling-Hammond. Paying off the “education debt” is the top priority of that group. Of course, one reason (though, of course, not the only reason) integration has ceased to be a broader national policy goal is because people with political views like Bill Ayers and Gloria Ladson-Billings (the originator of the concept of “educational debt”) think white American are the inevitably, inherently and irretrievably racist beneficiaries of their “whiteness.” Has Senator Obama thought through the potentially destructive implications of this world view? It would appear that he has not.

Reparations Anxiety | The American Prospect