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Units May 31, 2022

The Case for Reparations


Lesson Summary: Students engage with essays and primary source documents to discuss centuries of institutional racism in America and analyze the nuances and obstacles of enacting a nationwide system of redress for the Black community. Downloads: Full case for reparations unit

This unit was created by African American Studies Teachers in Columbia Public Schools, as part of the 2021 cohort of The 1619 Project Education Network. It is designed for facilitation across approximately 2 weeks, and includes four 90-minute lessons.

Objectives and Outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • Examine how intergenerational trauma and systemic and institutional racism affect us today.
  • Examine arguments for and against reparations.
  • Use the inquiry process to analyze arguments and evaluate historical maps.
  • Develop a written argument for or against reparations providing a detailed plan which addresses the social, historic, economic, and political needs of African Americans.

Unit Overview

Our unit focuses on understanding American chattel slavery as key to understanding the Black experience in America.  The goal is to explore how intergenerational trauma and systemic and institutional racism affect us today. Our essential question for the unit:  What are some of the lasting impacts of slavery in American society?     

Unit Narrative:  From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, in this unit students learn the institutional oppressions inflicted on the Black community over centuries in America. By grappling with reparations, students stop viewing these racist structures as finite eras composed of racist events and instead must explore the ways in which history informs the present, the generational impacts of oppression on an individual, and the relationship between America’s morality and the Black community’s humanity. 

Students will enter this historic and ongoing conversation first through Lee’s 2019 overview of the wealth gap and, secondly from the narrative of Clyde Ross as told in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 piece in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” Through Ross’ story, students encounter the structures that justify arguments for reparations including Jim Crow, seizure of Black-owned land, lynchings, unfair creditor practices, and redlining. Beginning with Ross’ story serves the same purpose that it does in Coates’ exhaustive argument, to humanize what often begins as an economic discussion. Students will note the effects of institutional racism within generations of one family, its geographical movement effects from Mississippi to Chicago, and its prevailing detriment in one Chicago neighborhood. 

This inquiry process develops student-skills in research, analyzing argument structure, map reading, and rhetorical strategies. Following these lessons, students will continue to read Coates’ case before developing their own argumentative stance on reparations, including how their proposal may be logistically implemented individually, in their community, or nationally. Our aim is that students enter the conversation on reparations rather than view it from afar.

Performance Task

Constructed Response: Construct a written argument that details a plan for or against reparations which addresses the social, historic, economic, and political needs of African Americans.  This argument should answer the compelling question by developing claims and using specific evidence from both primary and secondary sources.  It should also address and/or acknowledge arguments opposite the stance students took for/against reparations. 

Extension: Create a multimedia presentation that assesses and addresses the need(s) for reparations.  This presentation should address the needs of the Black community as well as answer the primary strategies and the strengths & weaknesses used in this campaign for redress. 


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