Free tuition as reparations for slavery

A resolution proposing free tuition for black students was accepted by the student government of Western Kentucky University last Tuesday. The free tuitions are supposed to be a form of reparation for the “systemic denial of access to high quality educational opportunities”. Though actual execution of the resolution is unlikely, the authors mostly want to use the resolution to start a conversation about accessibility of higher education for black people.

Reparations to me are a difficult thing. The first problem is one that is obvious: can you put a price on something like slavery? Of course, it never is anyone’s intention to say that $4956 of tuition money equals the freedom of your great-grandfather. Still, the implication is there. It feels wrong.

It comes with another problem as well, because human history knows more tragedies aimed at specific races or ethnic groups than slavery alone. By focusing on only one of these, the risk of a battle of tragedies is looming. If one disadvantaged group gets reparations, shouldn’t every group? How much do they get? What are these reparations based on? Do we get to decide who suffered most and who suffered least and pay reparations accordingly?

And aside from the victims, who do we blame? In this case, reparations would be financed through increased tuitions for non-black students, or through extra taxes. Senator Lily Nellans, a supporter of the resolution, stated that this makes up for the advantages that white people have historically enjoyed in American society. I recognize that black people are generally disadvantaged in comparison to white people, but that does not mean that underprivileged white people do not exist. Is their chance to climb up the socio-economic ladder not decreased even more by this proposal?

There is no doubt that socio-economic inequality, whether it be based on race or not, is a concern. There is no doubt that black history should be recognized, rather than hidden away. Personally, I doubt if this initiative is the right way to solve these complicated issues. However, at least this way we take our first step towards a solution: recognizing the issues at hand and discussing them.

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