Brown University and Reparations

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Three years ago Brown University President Ruth Simmons commissioned the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice "to investigate and to prepare a report about the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade". Simmons describes their purpose more broadly, however:

In addition, in view of the often confusing and contentious discussion of reparations, we wanted to move the examination away from a focus on reparations to learn more about the many ways in which societies past and present have dealt with retrospective justice following human rights violations such as genocide, internment, and certain forms of discrimination. We thought that our students would benefit from an understanding of those histories and experiences. Finally, we hoped that such an effort, rooted in our particular history, would excite interest among students and help them appreciate and accept meaningful discourse on even the most troubling subjects.

The steering committee has now released its report, and I'm impressed at its comprehensiveness and balanced perspective. Much of it is just chronicling historical events, including the role of slavery in New England in general, in the families involved with starting Brown, and in money that has gone into making the university what it is. The report includes reasons why understanding this history is a part of understanding the full legacy of the university, without at that point drawing any moral or political conclusions. As such, it is an excellent historical study much worth looking at.

Then they examine most of the important arguments for and against reparations, looking more broadly at other contexts in which some kinds of apologies, reparations, and similar actions have been given. They present some of the better reasons for thinking in terms of group responsibility and not individualizing so that those who identify with a group but aren't the culprits of past group activities still are heirs to the bad of the past if they can identify with the good of the tradition and be proud of it. They discuss the reasons given by proponents and opponents of reparations why certain kinds of reparations (especially monetary) would be a very bad idea and move on to other ways reparations could occur, concluding eventually with some recommendations that I almost entirely agree with. (See my post on reparations for my general perspective on this issue.)

It's very long, but I enjoyed skimming through it over breakfast yesterday morning. I was impressed at their command of the arguments on both sides of the issue and the ease with which they moved toward a very reasonable middle ground that captures what is good about both sides without getting unreasonable in the ways that I think both sides often get. When I first heard about this, I was worried that it might turn into a ridiculous undertaking, and that no longer looks like a real possibility.

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