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Education Dollars Could Help Pay Slavery's Debt

THE students were ebullient as they filed into my classroom at Morehouse College one day last year. Some of them had seen Louis Farrakhan the night before at a neighborhood rally; they explained to the class that the minister had demanded reparations from the United States government to the descendants of black slaves. "Add it up," a few of them shouted.Farrakhan had argued that since Jews and Japanese-Americans have received reimbursement for the violence and injustices of World War II, then African-Americans were entitled to even greater payments. While Farrakhan may be the most outspoken advocate of reparations, many African-American politicians are starting to endorse indemnification in one form or another. The Detroit City Council passed a resolution asking Washington for a $40 billion educational fund for the descendants of slaves. US Rep. John Conyers (D), also from Detroit, has authored a bill, now being considered by the House Judiciary Committee, that would examine the value of reparations. The word "reparation" comes from the Latin reparare, to restore. The proponents cite the present state of discrimination, and they have a point: We live in a torn and broken society, one that needs restoring. There are vast inequalities in the US, and blacks still receive poorer education and lower wages then whites, reflecting a failure in how the US has taught its poor, particularly minorities, over the years. If we consider that African-Americans were enslaved for centuries, forced into a hundred years of separate and unequal education, and given only one generation of equal access to higher education, we can begin to understand the challenges. African-Americans still suffer from slavery, and because of the existing inequalities, are due special compensation. Mr. Conyers's bill would examine the "lingering effects" of slavery on African-Americans today. However, reparations to the descendants of slaves have been resisted by critics who point out that in the reparations bill for Japanese-Americans, the compensated victims are still alive. Also, they say that the back pay, with interest, of the enslaved would simply never be paid by people who may not consider themselves directly culpable for the evils of slavery. But while the critics are probably correct in predicting resistance to massive direct payments to slave descendants - the slaves themselves never received their 40 acres and a mule - there is another path besides the status quo: Reparation in the broadest sense need not involve direct cash payments. We should look at the gross inequalities and try to make up the difference. Lack of adequate health care, drug treatment, housing, job training, and education affect all poor Americans, of which minorities ar e a significant part. Addressing these problems could benefit all Americans, while especially helping those of African descent. Affirmative action does help to create a few more jobs for African-Americans, and is perhaps the closest vehicle we have to reparations. However, affirmative action does not go far enough. The US should formally apologize for its past complicity with slave owners and segregationists. Japanese-Americans received their much-deserved apologies in the mail; African-Americans are still waiting. A potent civil rights bill can insure fairness in the job market. What will help young African-American students to be productive and prosperous? Better-paid elementary school teachers and smaller classes are the easiest steps to improve the lot of African-Americans. Head Start, a public pre-school program, has proven the efficacy of early intervention. The program will be expanded from $2.4 billion in 1991, to $7.7 billion in 1994, but George Bush, the self-named "education president," must make sure all children have access to pre-school programs. Also, we should cut the size of all the nation's public school classes between pre-school and sixth grade, and increase teachers' pay by a third. This would mean hiring hundreds of thousands more teachers and tutors and spending additional billions of dollars, but it would attract better teachers and allow them greater access to young minds. Finally, guaranteed assistance for higher education has proven effective as well. Ten years ago, Eugene Lang, an industrialist, promised to pay for the higher education of an entire East Harlem sixth grade class. Given the assurance that higher education was economically feasible, more than half of these students did something unusual for their school: They went to college. According to census figures, the poorest two-fifths of the population have become poorer under Reagan and Bush, making higher education even more inaccessible for them. We should guarantee an additional $6 billion annually for tuition assistance, which if properly administered could pay for nearly all the tuition of the least affluent 40 percent of the student population. Additional money for Head Start, public schools, and tuition assistance would be expensive: $30 billion annually. But that's less than one-ninth of the $295 billion defense budget. Changes in our imbalanced society, and in our priorities, are necessary. This way, the great-grandchildren of slaves, slave owners, and immigrants could work together to create a more perfect union, a land of opportunity for everyone.

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