Higher Education Plays Several Roles in Reparations Debate

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On Wednesday, June 19, the U.S. House of Representatives heard testimony regarding bill H.R.40, which calls for the creation of a federal commission to study if and how the United States could provide reparations for slavery.

The hearing, which intentionally took place on Juneteenth, was a historic occasion. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., had tried to introduce H.R.40 every year since 1989 until his retirement in 2017. Now, with the support of Rep. Sheila Jackson, D-Texas, and New Jersey senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker, the bill is finally gaining ground.

The prospect of establishing a commission to understand and redress one’s ties to slavery, however, is not unique. Many colleges and universities across the U.S. have undertaken this task in recent years, devoting months or years of research to uncovering how and to what extent they have benefited from slave labor.

Much of this work focuses on atonement through truth-telling, education, and memorialization. Save for Georgetown University, which can directly trace the descendants of the enslaved persons it once owned, there has been little talk of reparations. Georgetown, for its part, gives preferred admissions to descendants. The university’s students recently took it upon themselves to petition for monetary reparations under the argument that offering educational advantages for a select few does little to mitigate the cruelty and lasting damages of slavery.

It was an argument echoed on Capitol Hill yesterday. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the nation’s most influential reparations advocates, said in his testimony that he was not opposed to the idea of direct monetary compensation to African Americans, The New York Times reported. Other advocates argue that broader financial supports, including free college tuition, would be a more practical and effective form of reparations, according to the Times.

Economists and scholars of African American history have proposed several methods for calculating and allotting reparations both directly and through educational and community investments, but yesterday’s hearing was criticized for having few of these experts present.

Julianne Malveaux, an economist and former college president, testified in support of reparations but called out the House Judiciary Committee for “not directing enough towards experts like herself,” and focusing too much on emotional testimony rather than economic realities, according to CBS News.

University of Texas at Austin historian Daina Ramey Berry, who specializes in American slavery, wrote in an email to The Chronicle of Higher Education that she was “extremely frustrated,” with the hearing, as “this is many of our life’s work and none of us have been invited or asked to testify.”

In addition to Coates and Malveaux, speakers in support of reparations included Danny Glover, the great grandson of an enslaved woman, and documentarian Katrina Browne, whose ancestors were prominent slave traders.

Speakers against H.R.40 included NFL player Burgess Owens and Columbia University student and columnist Coleman Hughes. Both men pointed to themselves as examples of how African Americans can succeed without reparations. Hughes used his admittance to an Ivy League school as evidence and stated that “reparations, by definition, are only given to victims … the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me a victim without my consent.”

Booker called reparations “urgent” and necessary to redress not only the wrongs of slavery but the 150 years of violence, segregation, and discrimination that have plagued African Americans since emancipation, according to CBS.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued at the hearing that non-Black Americans alive today should not have to pay for a system in which they took no part and that measures such as civil rights legislation, as well as the election of President Barack Obama, prove that reparations are unwarranted.

The text of H.R.40 repeatedly mentions educational disparities in explaining why a commission to study the persistent harms of slavery is necessary. It describes economic and educational hardships suffered by Black Americans since 1865 as “debilitating” and notes that differences in educational funding have perpetuated this inequality.

Furthermore, it calls for the proposed commission to study how slavery directly benefited certain “societal institutions, both public and private, including higher education” and the ways in which contemporary “instructional resources” are used “to deny the inhumanity of slavery and the crime against humanity of people of African descent.”

The ultimate goal of the commission, states H.R.40, is to recommend “how federal laws and policies that continue to disproportionately and negatively affect African-Americans as a group, and those that perpetuate the lingering effects, materially and psychosocially, can be eliminated.” In addition to compensation, the bill calls for the commission to propose suitable programs, policies, and other measures to reverse these effects.