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Why We Need Reparations for America’s Black Students

The U.S. was built on the backs of enslaved people and grew to become one of the most powerful nations in the world on that legacy.

In 1860, four million enslaved human beings in the U.S. were “valued” at roughly $3 billion, more than all the capital invested in railroads and factories combined at the time. In 1861, the value placed on cotton produced by enslaved Black people was $250 million.


african female college graduate at graduation with classmates

White slave owners got rich, and their descendants have benefited ever since. It’s why the average white family today has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family. And why white college grads have more than seven times the amount of wealth as Black college graduates, according to the Brookings Institution.

And since money begets more money, the true value of the labor of enslaved people is more or less incalculable.

Jim Crow segregation, institutionalized racism, redlining, racist policing and incarceration, and other discriminatory practices have continued to rob Black Americans of the opportunities to build wealth since the days of slavery. It’s long past time to do something, really do something, to address our nation’s ugly history.

Georgetown University has become a model example of how the United States can start to repair past wrongs. In April, Georgetown’s undergrad students voted on a referendum to create a reparations fund for descendants of 272 enslaved people the university sold in 1838 to save itself from bankruptcy. Two-thirds of the students who participated in the referendum voted “yes.”


Young african american female having serious financial problems, feeling stressed

It’s a valiant effort by the university to make amends for its past. But what about Georgetown’s Black students? Forty percent of Black students in the U.S. have student debt, compared to 30 percent of white students, according to Brookings. And Black individuals in the U.S. have 50 percent more student loan debt than whites. Like the racial wealth gap, these debt disparities are tied to the legacy of slavery and discriminatory policies.

That’s why the ACLU and Brookings Institution, among others, are calling for reparations for America’s Black students. The ACLU is in favor of private and public universities underwriting the establishment of reparations funds to ensure students of African descent don’t leave school in debt.

And on the question of who exactly should receive reparations, Brookings put it this way:

“…a Black person who can trace their heritage to people enslaved in U.S. states and territories should be eligible for financial compensation for slavery. Meanwhile, Black people who can show how they were excluded from various policies after emancipation should seek separate damages. For instance, a person like Senator Cory Booker whose parents are descendants of slaves would qualify for slavery reparations whereas Senator Kamala Harris (Jamaican immigrant father and Indian immigrant mother) and President Barack Obama (Kenyan immigrant father and white mother) may seek redress for housing and/or education segregation.”

“But we can’t afford it.”


One of the central arguments around reparations is that the country can’t afford it. But the pandemic has illustrated that we can come up with plenty of money when we need to—even if it means increasing the national debt.

In March, Congress passed the CARES Act, a more than $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill to help Americans struggling in the face of the pandemic (we’ll save the fact that the bill disproportionately benefited millionaires and billionaires for another article).

An even more compelling example is the New Deal Era of 1930s, when the U.S. government shelled out the equivalent of $50 trillion to help the nation recover from the Great Depression.

We can come up with the money for reparations. It’s just a matter of collective will.

No amount of money can undo the past. But African Americans and Black people in the United States have never been on equal footing. Reparations, along with deep institutional change, can ensure we start to create a more perfect union that truly honors and uplifts all citizens.


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