Reparations and Higher Education
There is a continuing argument about the role of affirmative action, in various forms, in admissions and faculty recruitment at historically White universities, and in budget support for historically Black colleges and universities. But the debate does not get us much closer to consensus on a practical guiding principle for making decisions or even for defining the problems. That is because we are avoiding the explicit use of the concept of reparations. Without that, we cannot find our way to a clear formulation because the fundamental problem is unjust enrichment and what to do to rectify it.
It is difficult to introduce the concept of reparations because it appears to be accusatory and threatening to friendly allies of good will, because its analytical and factual basis is still new and undergoing further refinement and because it appears radical. But despite these difficulties, the concept addresses the unavoidable realities produced by 400 years of economic injustice, and goes far toward explaining the racial disparities on all measures of performance and outcomes.
Here is the heart of the matter. Whites, as a class, who are in the top 30 percent of the income and wealth distributions today, possess an unacknowledged inheritance bequeathed to them by the patterns and practices of millions of decisionmakers of the past. But they are only dimly aware of the history and context in which they are flourishing.
Our arguments about affirmative action and budgets in higher education reflect chronic underlying grievances between Whites and Blacks. And a fundamental issue is the Black sense that there is an unremedied historic economic injustice juxtaposed with the increasing White sense that there is reverse discrimination. The restitution principle can help resolve the dispute.
What are the policy implications, the remedies that are suggested when we analyze the resulting estimates of ill-gotten gains? One might be affirmative action in some form. Another might be lump sum or other redistributive income and wealth transfers, in-kind subsidies, or investments in real and human capital. That means scholarships, special targeted educational enrichment programs and other controversial items in educational budgets, at all levels, can be seen, and actually are, a means of repaying a measurable debt — of paying reparations.
So whatever the outcome of the debate over affirmative action, whether it survives or not, the restitution obligation will remain. And the restitution principle will help clarify the choices and inform the debate on make-whole remedies to Blacks as a class.
That Whites owe Blacks money is an idea that is not discussed in educational policy circles, although it is implied. But it is intuitively obvious. The vast amorphous injustice, racial exclusion, exploitation, and discrimination in many forms and in many markets, leads to a kind of debt.
This obligation actually does seem to be recognized but not articulated by many Whites. And it motivates many acts of altruism, “compassion,” and charity.
Yale Law School’s Boris Bittker, in his 1972 book, The Case for Black Reparations, examined these questions. He addressed the common objection — that raising these issues now, late in the game, is ex post facto, and contrary to our justice system. But, he said, there is ample precedent for finding retroactive guilt, and correcting it, where practicable.
So it is fundamentally a moral issue. But it’s also a practical matter. Restitution probably only stands a chance of gaining wide practical acceptance if it’s seen as a key to the overall management of the economy and its long-term health. So it will gain broad support if it’s understood as a matter of general social importance.
Restitution in education should be approached as a matter of broad income and wealth redistribution from “Haves” to “Have Nots” — and especially, though not only, from White “Haves” to Black “Have Nots.” Affirmative action is essentially about income and wealth redistribution.
But it hasn’t been discussed that way. It has not been debated explicitly as a means of changing income and wealth distributions. It has been muddled. Discussion is based on the mistaken concept that it’s intended to help “make up for past discrimination.” That’s the wrong formulation. And that’s a major reason the concept is so confused in the public mind.
The correct rationale is: We want to correct a current, not a past, injustice. The current injustice is that the top 30 percent of the income distribution, overwhelmingly White, enjoys this $5 to $10 trillion unjust enrichment at the expense of Blacks. The remedy includes affirmative action, which will shift occupation, wage, and employment distributions from Whites in favor of Blacks.
Putting it bluntly, that way will not produce an immediate enthusiastic embrace. But it will put the matter properly on the table — where the discussion of educational budgets and special investments in Black education, at all levels, can be rational and focused on the real problem and its solutions.
— Richard F. America
School of Business Administration
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