How Colleges and Universities Can Confront Their Complicity in Inequality


One of the four men who cast the Statue of Freedom that stands atop the U.S. Capitol dome, was enslaved. His name was Philip Reid, and during the 11 months he worked on the statue, he only received a total of $41.25 in compensation for the 33 Sundays he spent “Keeping up fires under the moulds.”  For the other 289 days of toil, he received nothing.

Reparations for slavery – for its cruelties, exploitation, and lasting legacies of racism, inequality, and underdevelopment — is back on the political agenda.  In an interim report to the California legislature in June, a taskforce identified 12 areas of systemic discrimination within the state, including slavery, racial terror, political disenfranchisement, housing segregation, separate, unequal education, environmental racism, the pathologizing of Black families, exploited labor and hindered opportunity, an unjust legal system, mental and physical harm, and gaps in wealth=

Among its preliminary recommendations are to:

  •  Provide housing grants to those who were forced from their homes due to state action, such as park construction, highway construction, and urban renewal.
  • Compensate those who were subjected to forced sterilization, medical experimentation, racist sentencing disparities, police violence, environmental racism, and psychological harm from race-related stress.
  • Award education grants to Black students who attend private schools and higher education within the state.
  • Raise the minimum wage and mandate health benefits, paid time off, and workplace protections for workers in agriculture, hospitality, and food and household services that employ large numbers of Black workers.

Only those African Americans who are direct descendants of enslaved or freed Blacks who were living in the United States before the end of the 19th century would be eligible for reparations.

Calls for reparation aren’t new.  In 1866, Congressional Republicans enacted the Southern Homestead Act, which put 46 million acres of land in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi up for public sale, with only Blacks and white unionists eligible during the law’s first six months.  However, due to barriers including cost, a lack of publicity, and resistance from white Southern officials, Blacks only “entered about 6,500 claims, of which about a thousand…resulted in property certificates.”  

In 1867, Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens proposed that the government confiscate the estates of the largest 70,000 landholders and redistribute 40-acre plots to the freedmen, but his plan was defeated in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

During the late 1880s and 1890s, fresh calls for reparations arose.  A plan introduced by Republican Representative William J. Connell in 1890 called upon the federal government to provide pensions of $15 a month and bounties of up to $500 to the oldest former slaves, partly as a measure to stimulate the post-Civil War Southern economy.  Six reparation proposals were introduced in Congress between 1889 and 1903, but none made any headway.  A lawsuit filed in the D.C. federal district court in 1915 requested that the $68,073,388.99 collected as taxes on cotton between 1862 and 1868 be distributed to those who had been enslaved, was dismissed on grounds that it violated the federal government’s sovereign immunity.

Reparations raises a host of philosophic and legal as well as practical issues.  There are ethical debates about the purpose of reparations.  Is it punishment for past sins and repayment for “all the wealth pild by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil”?  Is it a way to pay tribute to those who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow?  Is it a form of atonement for past injustices and a way to rectify historical wrongs by compensating those who suffer from inequities today? Is it the fulfillment of promises made during Reconstruction?  Or is it a path toward racial reconciliation?

Then there is the moral debate about whether money can retroactively cleanse evil and atone for centuries of inequality and exploitation, repair the relations between Blacks and those who have benefited from their exploitation, and undue the harms inflicted by slavery and Jim Crow?   

Legal restitution usually involves an identified victim against an identified perpetrator, leading legal critics of reparations to assert that there needs to be a connection between those harmed and those who benefited and between those who commit wrongs and those who pay reparations.  But in a number of instances in American history this hasn’t been the case.  Among the examples:  A few years after the Salem witch scare, Massachusetts Bay Colony apologized and provided compensation to the families of those executed as witches.  Starting in the 1830s, mob liability acts allowed victims of mob violence to seek compensation from municipalities.  More recently, there was belated compensation to families who suffered as a result of the Tuskegee syphilis study; payments for wrongful denial of loans to black farmers by the Department of Agriculture; and nearly $1 billion in compensation under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to native Alaskan tribes that had been stripped of their lands. 

Alongside the philosophical, moral, and legal debates over reparations are the difficult practical issues. Who should be eligible for reparations? Should reparations be confined to those whose ancestors suffered from slavery and Jim Crow – or do a host of other groups whose forebears also suffered discrimination and exploitation, and in the case of Native Americans, displacement and massacres, also deserve reparations?

Also, what form should reparations take?  Is money the appropriate remedy, or might reparations take a different form, for example, a memorial, research, education and training programs, scholarships, housing and health care, or investments in Black communities and institutions?  In other words, is the impact of reparations meant to be symbolic, signifying this country’s recognition and repudiation of a horrific evil?  Psychological, to raise consciousness about the harms that slavery and discrimination have inflicted?  Or practical, with real world consequences?  If the latter, is reparations a matter of restoration, redistribution or empowerment?

Then there is the political question of what’s actually possible. Given that reparations are politically divisive, opposed by a majority of whites and non-white immigrants and their descendants, how can any reparations scheme, especially at the national level, be adopted?  Is there a risk that reparations will reinforce divisions on the basis of color, class, and ethnicity, and alienate other groups that have suffered under the cover of law? 

In his recent book, Reconsidering Reparations, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, a Georgetown University philosopher, argues that reparations should look forward, not backward, in order to promote distributive justice. We can’t undo the past, but we can build a more just and equitable future. I agree with the legal scholar Alfred L. Brophy that a forward-looking perspective is less likely to be divisive than one that looks backward.

Given the political realities, it seems to me that issues of reparations are far more likely to be worked out at the state, municipal, and institutional levels.  This brings to mind the 1970s bumper sticker slogans, “Think globally, act locally” and “Being radical means being radical where you are.”

There has been lots of talk recently about how to create anti-racist campuses, and many of the suggestions are well-known.  Diversify the student body, the faculty, and staff.  Decolonize and broaden the curriculum.  Help students better understand the impact of race and racism on economics, education, healthcare, housing, law, and media.   Host difficult campus conversations.  Listen attentively to student voices.

What else might our colleges and universities do?

1. Research and present their campus’ unvarnished history without flinching.
I’d strongly urge campuses to establish a college or university history museum that tells the institution’s story honestly and forthrightly.

2. Regularly monitor students’ sense of belonging, comfort, and engagement.
Students who feel disconnected, marginalized, or invisible will almost inevitably drop out or transfer.

3. Conduct equity audits.
Check policies, procedures, requirements, curricula, pedagogies, grading, support services, programming, and resource allocation to make sure that these reflect the institution’s commitment to inclusive success.

4. Increase educational opportunities in surrounding communities.
Start or expand in-school and afterschool programs, weekend academies, and summer bridge programs.

5. Invest in community development.
Identify community institutions to partner with and help them take their community service efforts to a larger scale.

6. Strengthen efforts to diversify the student body, the faculty, the staff, and the administration.
Recruit aggressively not only for first-year admissions, but for transfer students, and for diverse employees in all roles.

7. Offer programs to provide comprehensive academic, financial, and social support to assist capable students who otherwise might not be able to attend your institution.
When I was at Hunter College, one of the roughly 28 programs I oversaw in my student success role was SEEK, an extraordinary college opportunity program.  Founded in 1965, the program enrolls economically-disadvantaged students who were otherwise ineligible for admissions based on the institution’s class rank and grade point average criteria.

Among the wrap-around services that the program provides include academic advising, academic skills building, career seminars, personal counseling, and mentoring opportunities. Participants must take part in summer courses in English, writing, and math, and in weekly skills-building workshops, daily tutorials, cultural events, and a host of team-building events, including student-faculty lunches, field trips, and guest presentations. The program’s retention record is amazing, and exemplifies the power of belonging, support, and caring.

In short, SEEK provides participating students with the same kinds of enrichment activities, experiential learning opportunities, dedicated support, and sense of membership in a learning community that honors students take for granted.  

In all too many cases, where one ends up is less a matter of talent or determination or persistence or industriousness than where one starts out.  Opportunity programs like SEEK demonstrate that with the right structures of support, we can bring many more students to success even in the most demanding fields of study.  

If colleges and universities are to live up to their commitment to equitable opportunity and social justice, then these institutions must do more than acknowledge their complicity with racism.  Campuses must also go beyond seeking to redress past wrongs with teaching, research, and community services. These institutions need to make programs like SEEK an integral part of their mission.  

This, I am convinced is one way that colleges and universities can reposition higher education as what it ought to be — an engine for social mobility.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


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