Sunday, July 31, 2005

Is There any Good from 50-Year Delayed Reparations?

Can receiving money for an education 45 years delayed as reparations make up for any of the long-term harm of racial hatred?

That's the serious question prompted by today's NY Times article about the reparations effort being undertaken by Prince Edward County, Virginia. 46 years ago, in response to Brown v. Board of Education, Prince Edward County decided that it would rather have no public education at all than permit it to be integrated. So they closed and chained the public schools in 1959, until forced by the Supremes to reopen them in 1964. The 5-year void left thousands of Black children without access to an adequate education and forced their parents to find creative solutions if their children were to receive any education at all. (As should have been expected, white children received state-funded vouchers so that they could continue their education at private schools unaffected.)

Prompted by a white journalist, whose guilt over this ugly legacy spurred him to political action, it appears that a $2 million fund has been established by the State of Virginia and a private donor to provide education scholarships of up to $5,500 to those adults who were victims of the 5-year closure of Prince Edward County schools nearly 50 years ago.

There are obvious questions that this idea raises, no matter where you come down on the question of its philosophical merit. To start with, if you have only $2M available, you can provide only Up to 363 scholarships at the maximum level of $5,500, if my math is correct. Yet according to the Times, thousands of people are eligible. How does one decide who gets help and who does not? What happens to the rest if scholarships are awarded at the maximum level?

Another obvious place of inquiry is to ask what happens to those children who relocated out of Virginia at some point after the closure, whether because of the closure or not? Do they qualify to share in the scholarships? And, if they do, at what price can they access Virginia colleges? At a time where in-state college tuition in Virginia ranges from $3,840 to $7,584 (at VMI), but out of state tuition starts at $6,275 for Community College and goes all the way up to $21,000 plus for the University of Virginia, that question is a Big Deal if the maximum that any of these victims can get is $5,500. There is no point providing a drop in a bucket that has no water coming in from any other source. In some cases, where the affected adult has no other ability to access funds due to poverty, it seems almost cruel - designed to create the appearance of doing something without actually doing anything meaningful at all.

Also, how do you utilize the money to help those who may not have finished high school at all, and who need adult education? There is a compelling argument that these students should not be forced to spend the award of remedial adult education, but that this should be provided free of charge by Virginia without reduced eligibility going forward. Since, after all, the Supreme Court made clear in Griffin v. Prince Edward County (1964) 377 U.S. 218, Virginia was totally, completely, utterly out of pocket when it closed the schools in the first place rather than acquiesce to Brown's holding. There was no excuse, and no defense to the charge of a deliberate violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

And of course, the most important question of all: Does any of this really heal anything?

It is clear that the wound of this chapter of history run deep in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Apparently, so deep that a movie was made about it, and the role of the Griffin case in establishing a constitutional right to a publicly-funded education:

They Closed Our Schools

Any doubt about the ongoing harm should be readily erased by simply reading the words of some of the people, now senior citizens, who were directly affected by what happened in Prince Edward County. Reading their words in the Times literally hurts:

The group had mixed views on whether they could ever forgive the state for what happened, scholarships notwithstanding.

Barbara Spring, 53, a retired firefighter, said she sat at home for four years after the schools closed. She said the scholarships enabled state officials to deal with their guilt. "It's a way to make up for what took place, and, in part, that's good," Ms. Spring said. "I believe in education, but it will never heal the wounds and scars of the past."

Leola Bailey, 52, who lost two years of school before she found classes to attend in a local church, agreed. "I feel like it's never too late to learn," Ms. Bailey said. "They have apologized for what they have done, but I don't know if they really mean it. I think they're doing it just to say they've done something."

But Alda Boothe, 55, a lab technician whose parents sent her to live with relatives during the years the schools were closed, was more willing to let it go. It was unfair, she said, to blame contemporary elected officials for the sins of their predecessors.

Ms. Moseley, too, is willing to forgive, saying she does not feel as bitter as others. "I'm the kind of person who thinks it's never too late," she said. "To do it now is better than not having done anything at all."

Even so, images of rejection still haunt her after several decades. "I lived behind one of those schools; they were closed with chains," she said. "I looked at it every day of my life. If I close my eyes, I can still see those doors chained up."

Anyone who still questions that the harm lives on to this day needs to plaster this woman's quote on a prominent place like their refrigerator door or bathroom mirror where they have no ability to avoid seeing it. Racially-motivated cognitive dissonance is indeed powerful, but even it can be overcome if you prevent folks from escaping the truth.

Many have said that had Andrew Jackson -- racist SOB, president or no -- just honored General Sherman's 130-year old promise and actually handed out the 40 acres and a mule to the heads of emancipated slave families, much of the harm we still see readily today as the legacy of Jim Crow and anti-Black discrimination -- including the lingering harm from the closure of Prince Edward County schools knowing it would prevent Blacks from obtaining an education because of an economic inability to access private education -- would have likely not existed, and even if they had, it would certainly not be to the degree that exists today. Of course, we cannot prove or disprove this assertion because folks don't even want to objectively evaluate the issue of reparations. For example, Congressman John Conyers' proposal to form a subcommittee to seriously study the question of reparations is rebuffed each year, like clockwork:

Committee to Study Reparations Proposals for African-American Act

But avoiding the questions don't make them go away. Here's one of my favorites: Exactly how much accrued value has been lost by America's refusal to honor the 40 acres and a mule promise for the past 130 years? Folks far more dedicated than I have actually tried to look at this question. One look at the bottom line number explains a lot about why there is no way in hell that even a fraction of it it would ever be paid:

What would an 1865 plot of 40 acres be worth to Black America today? According to economist Darity’s numbers, about $1.6 million dollars to every African American – not counting the mule. “That should be the anchor for reparations,” he said.

And what of free and devalued Black labor? In a 2000 paper, Professor Joe R. Feagin, of the University of Florida, at Gainesville, reviewed a number of labor reparations calculations. He concluded:

”Clearly, the sum total of the worth of all the black labor stolen by whites through the means of slavery, segregation, and contemporary discrimination is staggering – many trillions of dollars. The worth of all that labor, taking into account lost interest over time and putting it in today's dollars, is perhaps in the range of $5 to $24 trillion.”

The entire article is here: Wealth of a White Nation. But it is clear that if the country won't even come up with the money to honor it's Millenium Challenge Promise, Jesus himself would have to come back before they'd even be willing to look at this one again. It's far cheaper to delay delay delay and then when everyone is dead, argue that all the victims are dead and that there is no way to "fix" anything now (the successful strategy pursued by America for some time now to avoid making amends for its anti-Black legacy), not even through the one thing that costs nobody any money at all - a national apology.

Ultimately, one can make compelling arguments that what was promised back then is completely irrelevant given that the promise was not honored in the first place - as Dr. King once said, in another famous context, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds.". But in 20-20 hindsight, the refusal to honor the promise back in 1865 should strike everyone as Penny wise and Pound Foolish. After all, whites did not reduce their hatred one iota after they got to keep all the land that their former slaves had made productive. Yet 130 years later we're still talking about the issue of how to make up for the indisputable harm that is the legacy of our slave past (Of course, I'm speaking in an echo chamber, because the folks most opposed to reparations are the same folks who are in constant denial about the direct relationship between what happened in the past and what is happening today.)

One has to ask how much a person would have been willing to pay if they could have purchased, with reasonable certainty, assurance that our country would not be still hung up on trying to address the long-term effects of the psychological, cultural and educational genocide formerly known as slavery and the legacy of Jim Crow today.

So why bother? No amount of money in the world can stop someone from being haunted 50 years after the fact. It will never make up for the psychic damage, and anyone who thinks that it can is delusional - the human mind and spirit simply don't work that way. So why bother at this point? This is the central argument of those who are opposed to any reparations movement for African-Americans, and it is a compelling argument.

But on the other hand, as the man whose moral conscience led to the idea in the first place said:
"We can't rewrite history, and we shouldn't. . ."But we can make history, and it needs to be made. The scholarships are a piece of goodness in a world that wasn't there before. As an educational opportunity, they're a chance to give back as best we can and teach a lesson that we can never do anything like we did again."

Some might argue, myself among them, that the future lessons learned from the exercise of making reparation is the only real value to reparations at all, since nothing can truly "undo" that which has happened. But the fact that reparations discourse may have no further value than that does not change that it indeed has at least the potential for tangible value, even today (or perhaps, especially today.)

Given this, the reparations effort in Prince Edward County, no matter how inadequate it actually is to the task of making full amends, utterly belies the idea that the past is the past and that today we can do absolutely nothing, merely because things happened "too long ago." At least some people think it can - and that's a starting place for a honest, serious discussion, if nothing else.


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