Commit to Reparations

The Editorial Board responds to recent student concerns that the college is not making visible change in terms of racial justice. It argues that the best way to make concrete change is to make a commitment to reparations.

A lot has happened recently in regards to race at the college. On Oct. 4, President Biddy Martin sent out the latest update on the Anti-Racism Plan to students, faculty and staff, exactly one minute before a talk on the history of slaveowner Israel Trask, one of the college’s most generous donors and earliest trustees. The talk was given by Nicka Smith, a descendant of people enslaved by Trask who specializes in researching African-ancestored genealogy.

Two days later, the Council of Amherst College Student-Athletes of Color (CACSAC) held a walkout protest demanding the college support the financial needs of student-athletes, CACSAC representation during head coach hirings, and further dialogue with Martin on issues of racial and socioeconomic equity. And most recently, on Oct. 11, the Amherst Association of Students (AAS) sent a statement to the students and administration condemning the recent hateful emails targeting Black students at neighboring UMass and questioning the lack of visible efforts on the part of the college to support Black people in the broader Five College community.

While the college has tried to make its efforts visible via statements like the Anti-Racism Plan update, students aren’t connecting with these efforts, something demonstrated clearly by both the CACSAC protest and the AAS statement. Part of this disconnect is because most changes happen behind closed doors, but it also stems from the fact that the college simply isn’t doing much that meets the students desires for material change. Students want the college to do more than just creating another committee or preparing another report. The best thing for demonstrating concrete change would be taking concrete action.

The clearest place for this kind of action is in dealing with the question of reparations that both the nearby Town and fellow colleges and universities have struggled with in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. The college should publicly commit to reparations and, in doing so, become one of the first higher education institutions in the country to acknowledge a need to materially make amends.

The first step is admitting that there is a debt to be paid. Though the first paragraph of the college’s Anti-Racism Plan still states that the college “does not believe the research supports the claim that the founders were slaveowners,” the recent talk by Smith, held just after the latest update, and the work of the Steering Committee on a Racial History of Amherst College, tell a different story. Israel Trask, one of the college’s first trustees, was a slaveowner with enslaved people in three states including Massachusetts. Trask was responsible for some of the largest donations the college received in its early years, meaning much of the wealth which sustained the college as it began was derived directly or indirectly from slavery. It clearly has a debt to pay to the descendants of those enslaved by its trustee and a responsibility toward supporting the well-being and economic development of the Black community of the Connecticut River Valley.

Even so, it’s not clear what a reparations program would look like. Most large-scale reparations programs, like those of California or the U.S. House of Representatives, begin first with commissions to consider their options, and at Amherst College, things would likely be no different. But there are real examples to consider as well. In 2019, Evanston, Ill. established the country’s first municipal reparations fund, which it has used to support homeownership in the Black community by offering grants toward down payments or home repair. And Virginia Theological Seminary pledged $1.7 million dollars to aid descendants of those who were enslaved at the seminary or who lived in the nearby community during Jim Crow as well as additional funds in order to support Black congregations, support the work of Black alumni, and promote other equity efforts.

Similarly, reparations from other colleges are not a new idea. Many colleges have been pushed by students to pursue racial justice in the form of material reparations, though admittedly, many of those colleges have also stalled in offering up the forms of financial reparations that students have asked for. Georgetown students, for example, eventually voted to tax themselves to pay for a reparations fund when the university refused to act. But college reparations efforts are picking up steam: the State of Virginia recently enacted legislation requiring certain colleges with a “demonstrated historical connection to slavery” to pay reparations, some of which may take the form of scholarships or economic development programs.

Nearby efforts by the Town of Amherst, however, provide perhaps the clearest steps forward. Last year, the Town committed to lasting “tangible” reparations efforts, specifically addressing historic housing and employment inequality in the community. The Town established the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, with a charge to plan the creation of “ongoing funding streams” to amend for past harms against the Black community. The college could similarly prepare an ongoing financial betterment campaign, directed both at its own historical racial problems, such as its attachment to Trask, but also at improving things in the nearby community.

The case for reparations is clear. The time to commit is now.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 12; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 7).