How Can We Right Past Wrongs?

Last Wednesday, March 10, the Associated Press (AP) published an article following the recent push for reparations in the town of Amherst. The article draws heavily on a recent interview with former Sociology Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass) Edwin Driver, the first professor of color hired by the university, about his experience with discrimination in Amherst and his thoughts on reparations.

The movement for reparations began last summer amidst a nationwide reckoning with the legacy of American racism and the release of a local report by two white residents detailing the history of anti-Black discrimination in Amherst itself. By December of 2020, the Town of Amherst issued a recognition of its past discrimination and a commitment to right its past wrongs. Yet one simple question remains — how?

Ideas abound. Driver himself suggested making up for the reduced salary he received throughout his career, and maybe naming the Old Chapel in which he first worked in his honor, while current UMass Africana Studies Professor Amilcar Shabazz proposed town monuments recognizing celebrated Black members of the community, like Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin, both of whom taught at UMass. Others, like former Amherst NAACP President Kathleen Anderson, prefer reforms aimed at systemic disparities, like the wide gap between median white and Black income in Amherst — the average Black family has half the income of its white counterparts and half of Amherst’s Black population is below the poverty line. In recognition of the fact that the best way to meet a community’s needs often starts by asking the community what it needs, Reparations for Amherst is hosting closed-door meetings of Black residents in order to generate a better idea of what the Black community in Amherst wants reparations to look like.

So far, conversations have seemed to center around a similar and successful drive for reparations in Evanston, Illinois, the first American municipality to commit tax dollars to reparations. Evanston placed a three percent tax on recreational marijuana, the proceeds of which are to be spent supporting Black homeownership. While a similar tax may be part of the solution in Amherst, some, like Driver, have suggested that the colleges in the area take a more direct role in making amends for inequities that they have historically promoted within the community.

According to the AP article, the colleges issued statements of support for the town’s effort but “stopped short of committing any resources.” When asked by The Student about the college’s plans to support the town effort, Chief Communications Officer Sandy Genelius noted that they “look forward to learning more” about the project and that the college hadn’t heard word from the town yet on the reparations push, though it suspects such communication is forthcoming. Regardless of the administration’s plans for bettering the community once the town reaches out, one thing that we, the Editorial Board, urge is the inclusion of the student body in that decision-making. 

While it may be immediately obvious that the college has a responsibility to the town in which it is situated, it could be less clear what the responsibility of students is. After all, we’re only going to be here for four years while the college itself has been here for 200. But as members of this institution, we have a duty to promote a strong relationship between the college and the town that will last long after we’re gone. 

We owe this at the very least to future Amherst students and the college itself, for giving us the opportunity of an Amherst education. But, we also owe it to the town that forms such a crucial role in making our environment the healthy college environment that it is — without the town, we may as well be Williams.

While the Editorial Board urges the administration to include students, faculty, staff and even alumni in decision-making regarding the college’s position on town reparations, we must also acknowledge that such broad campus-wide discussion often only occurs at the result of sustained student pressure. We saw this in the community housing scandal of last year, and in this year’s #ReclaimAmherst push. For this reason, it is all the more important that students themselves take an active role in informing themselves about the town and its politics, and open a dialogue with the administration about student beliefs and priorities. We can call for transparency from the college time and time again, but if it fails to engage us, it is up to us to engage in these issues ourselves.

Our town is on the verge of a historic decision to give reparations to its Black community, but the need is still clear for engagement and resources to strengthen the movement and assure an impactful outcome. Students at Amherst and UMass can and should push their institutions further to reckon with their pasts and the needs of the local community. Beyond that, we should also push to have a voice in the decision making process, starting by educating ourselves on our local realities in this unprecedented time of isolation.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 12; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 2)