A strange phenomenon has been occurring around the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Having unmasked the inequities, inequalities and disparities between white folks and people of color, the coronavirus has fueled widespread public outrage and interracial righteous anger, not seen in this country since those four precious little girls were murdered in the basement bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The protests have, in turn, tapped into the veins of white guilt in a peculiar manner. Reports have emerged of white people giving money to Black people — in some cases to complete strangers — as a way to show solidarity with never-ending African American struggle for justice and freedom. It also seems to be a way to offer “reparations” to individuals for America’s original sin of white supremacy and its cruel progeny, systemic racism.
Until very recently, the “R” word has evoked frowns of disapproval from reasonable people on all sides of the political spectrum, to the extent that it deserves a clear and accurate definition. Often rejected as a free hand out by both victims of oppression and perpetrators of wrongdoing alike, the term has been misunderstood and misappropriated in the public discourse. The dictionary defines it as, “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.” This definition defies the misconception that reparations are only hand-outs to the indigent.
For instance, if someone steals your cell phone on Sunday, and returns it with a note of apology on Tuesday, it is, by definition, neither a hand-out nor a gift. It is simply returning to the owner what is rightfully theirs, perhaps, as a way to repair the broken trust caused by the theft. Returning stolen property, however, is insufficient to repair the relationship. The effort to reconcile the relationship must include both a change in behavior and an action of recompense. In other words, making amends for a wrong done requires more than lip service, it demands new behavior.
Even for those who are open to the conversation on reparations, questions of practical execution inevitably arise. Who should pay the money? The government? Private philanthropy? Who gets the money? Descendants of slaves? All Americans of African ancestry? How much should be paid? How will the money be distributed? There are those, too, who may say, “My ancestors were not slaveholders, so why should I be held liable for paying back the formerly enslaved? All fair questions, but they miss the point.
The point of reparations is not to absolve personal sin, but rather to address structural or institutional injustice. While no one reparative solution will solve the whole problem, one of the areas in American society that continues to be deeply unequal and systemically unjust is in higher education. In a recent virtual lecture, held on Junteenth, by noted historian John Whittington Franklin, son of the pre-eminent African American historian, John Hope Franklin, Professor Franklin asserted his late father’s position on reparations. He stated that while his dad understood the impracticality of making restitution to a whole race of people in every aspect of life, he had always supported reparations, nonetheless. Because it was forbidden by law to educate Black people before the Civil War and since white colleges and universities did not admit Black people until long after the war, Dr. Franklin’s desire was to see reparations directed primarily to the education of his people. I agree with Dr. Franklin.
Out of this inequity were born historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Established before or soon after the Civil War, HBCUs were created to meet the educational needs of previously enslaved people. Over a century after their founding, Republican President George H. W. Bush put it this way: “At a time when many schools barred their doors to Black Americans, these colleges offered the best, and often the only, opportunity for a higher education.”
Despite the disadvantages inherent to most HBCUs, the educational success of these institutions has been staggering. Representing only 3% of colleges in the United States, these schools produce nearly 20% of all African American graduates. Some 50% of all Black professors at majority schools in the U.S. are HBCU graduates. More than 80% of all Black Americans with medical/dentistry degrees graduated from either Howard University or Meharry Medical college (currently they account for almost 20% of these degrees). HBCUs lead all U.S. colleges in awarding bachelor’s degrees to Black students in the life sciences, physical sciences, math and engineering. 75% of all Blacks holding a doctorate earned it from an HBCU; Likewise, 75% of all Black military officers earned their undergraduate degree from an HBCU. 80% of all federal judges are HBCU graduates. These accomplishments and many others have been achieved despite the comparatively meager financial resources of HBCUs.
Each of the top 10 traditionally white institutions (TWIs) boast astonishing endowments in the tens of billions, with Harvard leading the pack at the eye-popping amount of nearly 40 billion dollars. Compare that to the sad fact that the top 10 HBCUs altogether do not reach one billion dollars in endowed funds. Of course, this imbalance can be partly attributed to the adage, “Money begets money;” and most of the top TWI’s had been building wealth for over a century before the first HBCU was founded. Still, the difference in the basic financial health of HBCUs in 2020, mirrors the deep racial health disparities revealed by COVID-19. It could be reasonably argued that had it not been for white philanthropy, HBCUs would be in even worse financial shape. Although this may be true, I would argue that when it comes to reparations for HBCUs, white philanthropy has been anemic, at best. What was once driven by mere paternalism, now has an opportunity to become true solidarity.
As early as 1810, Yale University President Timothy Dwight indicated his awareness of the obligation, born of their white privilege, to do more than liberate the enslaved, stating the following:
“We inherit our ample patrimony with all its incumbrances; and are bound to pay the debts of our ancestors. This debt, particularly, we are bound to discharge: and, when the righteous Judge of the Universe comes to reckon with his servants, he will rigidly exact the payment at our hands. To give them liberty, and stop here, is to entail upon them a curse.”
Thankfully, at least one philanthropist has set a wonderful example of his willingness to answer the call to greater financial support of HBCUs. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, recently shared privately with UNCF President, Dr. Michael Lomax, (a Morehouse graduate), the generous gift he had made to his alma mater, Bowdoin College. Dr. Lomax nodded affirmatively but proceeded to tell Mr. Hastings of a whole other world where he could make a difference. After speaking with his wife and reflecting on what Dr. Lomax had shared with him, the Hastings decided to meet this pivotal moment of social transformation in America with an exemplary gift to HBCUs. Mr. and Mrs. Hastings granted the United Negro College Fund, along with Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, 120 million dollars, the largest single gift in the 76-year history of the UNCF. He stated that the only reason he went public with his contribution was to inspire others to do the same.
It is said that when white America gets a cold, Black America gets the flu. By all accounts, this pandemic has certainly made a dire financial situation much worse for HBCUs. As the world health community scrambles to find a vaccine for the coronavirus, my hope is that the white American philanthropic community will be inspired to find in their laboratory of brotherly love a vaccine for the virus of systemic racism in higher education. It may not lead to a cure for the disease, but it can surely aid in the reduction of community spread and make a huge down payment towards meaningful reparations.