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Reparations experts criticize U.'s slavery and justice response

Though reparations experts have praise for the University's official plan to make amends for its historic ties to slavery and the slave trade, some criticize the response's lack of focus on immediate descendants of slaves.

Reparations activists who expressed similar concerns about the recommendations made by the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice in October say the official response should have done more to directly create opportunities for black Americans.

The University's response included creating a $10 million endowment for public education in Providence and funding for graduate fellows who agree to serve in local schools. Its other initiatives included increased transparency about the University's historic ties to slavery, discussions with local officials about the creation of a memorial to commemorate the slave trade and academic research initiatives related to slavery.

Adjoa Aiyetoro, co-president of the Legal Defense Research and Education Fund of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, said the public education initiatives that form the centerpiece of the response are a "nice thing" but are ultimately "irrelevant" to Brown's involvement in slavery and the slave trade.

"No one would say this is awful," Aiyetoro said. She is a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and serves as co-chair of the Reparations Coordinating Committee, an advocacy group. "But it doesn't respond to the history of exploitation of Africans and African descendants (of former slaves)."

"I have a real problem that the focus is on educating teachers and children in the broad focus without any focus on African Americans," she added. "To me, (those initiatives) don't fit in this report unless they do have a focus on Africans and African descendants."

But she said black Americans would directly benefit from the response's mandate to strengthen Brown's ties to Tougaloo College and other historically black colleges and universities, which had not been mentioned in the original report's recommendations. Aiyetoro also responded favorably to the response's plan to create a memorial and launch a research initiative.

Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, executive director of the Restitution Study Group, also said she was disappointed by the University's indirect response to the current problems facing black Americans. She particularly criticized the report, also pointing out the response's omission of any sort of scholarship program for slave descendants.

"I don't see real efforts to address the vestiges of slavery that black people suffer from," Farmer-Paellmann said. "With respect to the children of Providence, the report should really make clear that the children that any kind of endowment would be benefiting are the children that are descended from enslaved Africans."

She also said the $10 million dedicated for educational outreach represented "a drop in a bucket" for a school like Brown.

Without any plan to increase black enrollment or pay for black students to attend Brown, the response could not adequately make amends for Brown's past, Farmer-Paellman said.

"To really deal with the problems that black people have, we need money, and we need access to educational opportunity," she said. "Most of the recommendations don't seem to deal with what our needs are as a community."

Unlike Aiyetoro, Farmer-Paellmann said she was unimpressed by the response's call for increased aid to historically black colleges and universities.

"It's nice to help the historically black colleges, but that's a nice, neat, tidy way of keeping the students out of Brown University," she said.

"They don't really commit a dollar amount, and that concerns me," she added.

But in contrast to Aiyetoro and Farmer-Paellman's criticisms, Al Brophy, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law and a reparations scholar and advocate, said the response was "terrific" and that the educational outreach initiative was a fitting centerpiece.

"One of the great things about this is that Brown is focusing on the area where it has expertise ... and saying 'let's use our expertise in education as a way of doing something positive and forward-looking,'" Brophy said.

He noted that the committee's findings about Brown's historical relationship to slavery were not all negative.

"It's a complex history, and Brown has a lot in its history to be proud of," Brophy said, noting that Francis Wayland, the University's fourth president, was one of the country's leading "anti-slavery advocates" prior to the Civil War.

"It's exactly the kind of response you'd hope for given that report," he said. "I think Brown's behavior has been a model here, and schools that have these issues across the country - either of slavery or of Jim Crow - will look to Brown as a model."

Brophy said he expects other schools will launch similar investigations in the near future thanks to Brown's example.

He disagreed that the response did too little to redress the specific legacies of slavery.

"I'm not sure it makes sense to try and tailor everything to people whose labor benefited specifically Brown," Brophy said, adding that the response honored the legacy of former slaves by taking positive action in their memory. "I think a lot of the reparations movement is aimed at talking about the connections of the past to the present and trying to do something positive and forward-looking into the future."

He also said he was "pleasantly surprised by the breadth of the response," noting that it included components on Brown's campus, at other institutions and in the larger community.

Overall, he said, Brown has admirably lived up to the committee's original mission.

"Every institution should be so fortunate as to engage in such an important and lengthy dialogue and then come up with something that is so positive," he said. "I think Brown has put a challenge to other institutions that have connections to slavery to do the same thing."

Aiyetoro offered qualified praise of the University's efforts to date.

"I think it has been groundbreaking," she said. "I respect (President Ruth Simmons) for taking the lead on this, saying 'We're not going to continue to ignore our history.'"

But the response's indirect connection to slave descendants was "not a minor criticism," she said. "I think they've fallen short on their recommendation to attempt to reconcile their present with their past."

Paellmann said she fears the University's effort will remain incomplete. At this stage, she said, the University has succeeded in acknowledging its past but has fallen short in proposing remedies.

"We needed them to (acknowledge the history), but that's finished already," she said. "Now the issue is moving forward and actually atoning."




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