The idea of reparations for slavery presented by many black leaders is an impractical solution to the plight of black America, John McWhorter, a black author on the subject and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told an audience of about 70 students, faculty and staff Tuesday night in List 120.
The lecture was the first in a series sponsored by the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice titled "Perspectives on the Slavery Reparations Debate." McWhorter addressed the issue of slavery reparations as a broad concept, rather than with regards to Brown's history.
Before he gave his own reasons for opposing reparations for slavery, McWhorter attempted to debunk common arguments against them, including the idea that reparations are impossible to implement because it is difficult to identify ancestors of slaves, that too much time has passed since slavery and that reparations cast blacks as victims.
He also called the notion that reparations are necessary to address systemic racism "peculiar," saying, "If (African-Americans) insist that we cannot succeed with systemic racism, we are the first group of people I can think of to do so."
McWhorter said the true cause of poverty in some parts of black America is the welfare reforms of the 1960s, not slavery. He blamed several professors who taught at Columbia University in the 1960s, calling them "Marxists ... of whiteness" whose aim was to make welfare recipients dependent on the government. However, upon questioning from Associate Professor of Music David Josephson, who taught at Columbia during the era, McWhorter revised his comments and apologized for exaggerating.
Explaining how blacks can overcome oppression without reparations, McWhorter pointed to community outreach programs such as the Harlem Children's Zone, a grassroots group that goes door-to-door helping New York City residents.
"There's not going to be a revolution. There's going to be hard work," he said.
McWhorter said many communities are beginning to emerge from poverty as a result of these efforts. "Inner cities are changing, and a lot of it is due to people who are actually interested in making the best of a bad situation. Reparations, in the form of community outreach and affirmative action, has already happened, and it has been working," he said.
McWhorter was also critical of modern black leaders such as Louis Farrakhan, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, saying their calls for reparations amount to nothing more than "theater."
"These people are not actually concerned with helping the poor. The reparations movement is based on gestures, not sincerity," said McWhorter, who made sure to point out that, in his opinion, these figures have gradually and unintentionally moved from caring about poor blacks to touting an empty message.
During the question-and-answer session, one student drew light applause when she criticized McWhorter for ignoring the influence of deindustrialization, former President Ronald Reagan and former Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater for the current poverty in black America.
"The welfare revolution was a tsunami for poor, black America," McWhorter insisted.
One faculty member from the history department told McWhorter that he "had some difficulty understanding the coherence of (McWhorter's) argument" because McWhorter began his lecture by arguing why reparations don't make sense but also said that they are currently effective in the form of affirmative action and community outreach programs.
Responding to a question about affirmative action, McWhorter said he felt "giving preference to someone who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks is a good thing," but railed against the idea of diversity, calling the term "condescending" and characterizing it as "a muffin word."
"The term diversity is really very, very sad. Historians will laugh at that term in 100 years," he said.
McWhorter earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford University and taught at Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley, before joining the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of five books, including a book on dialects and black English, "The Word on the Street." He is also the author of "Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black America," a book criticizing the idea of reparations.
The slavery and justice committee generated national attention in 2003 when President Ruth Simmons formed it to explore Brown's relationship to slavery. Some have argued that the committee is simply a rubber stamp for reparations, but this is the first time the group has publicly considered the issue.
Associate Professor of American Civilization, Africana Studies and History James Campbell chairs the committee and moderated the question-and-answer session.
"I thought it was extremely civil and well-attended," Campbell told The Herald. "Certainly we have had more attendance (tonight) by undergraduates than in previous events. This fall we're moving to terrain that evokes great passion, but that's no reason to steer clear of the territory. Our hope is to create a space in which people can confront an issue that evokes great passion in a reasoned, rigorous and civil way."
The next lecture in the series will be given by Roy Brooks, an author and professor of law at the University of San Diego, in Salomon 001 on Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m.