Ask Black leaders how they would spend $100 million to address the legacies of slavery and you might get 100 different answers.
Harvard University is committing that sum toward reparations after releasing a report detailing the institution’s ties to slavery — from presidents and faculty who enslaved Black people to pivotal donors who built their fortunes as slave merchants and plantation owners using slave labor.
The money will go toward helping the institution “redress — through teaching, research, and service — our legacies with slavery,” according to a letter Harvard president Larry Bacow shared with the university community last week.
Harvard has formed a committee to figure out how to distribute the funds. Of course, the world’s richest university could afford to dole out more, and it just might. The toughest part is figuring out how to use money to right the wrongs of the past.
I asked local Black leaders how they would distribute $100 million — some of which can be spent right away, with the balance held in an endowment. Some told me money should go only to descendants of Black people who were enslaved. Others believe it should benefit communities by dismantling racial bias in systems such as in education or banking. Still others believe only a national reparations initiative can begin to reverse nearly four centuries of discrimination.
“One hundred million dollars is a drop in the bucket relative to the $11 trillion racial wealth gap,” said Dania Francis, a University of Massachusetts Boston economist who studies racial disparities.
Aisha Francis, president of the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, outlined the most detailed course of action: giving $50,000 to certain descendants of enslaved people that can be used toward a down payment for a home.
Francis would stipulate the money be given to descendants with ties to Harvard, such as faculty, staff, students, or alumni, and who come from low-income households and are first-time home buyers. The funds would not have to be repaid.
People freed from slavery were supposed to be given land as reparations, but that never happened. And when Black people have tried to buy real estate, historically they have faced redlining and other discriminatory policies.
“Ultimately, the lack of homeownership is a huge disadvantage in Black people’s ability to pass down generational wealth,” said Francis. “Black people provided the American economy 400 years of free labor and then suffered the effects of redlining in the banking and real estate sectors. This created persistent racial wealth inequity, which some refer to as ‘the wealth gap.’ But this is not a gap. Instead it’s an enormous fissure in the myth of the American Dream that needs to be exposed and fixed.”
Manikka Bowman, former vice chair of the Cambridge School Committee, said Harvard should focus on changing the educational systems that prevent Black students from achieving their full potential.
The school has indicated it wants to do more to support historically Black colleges and universities, and Bowman, as a graduate of Bethune-Cookman University, a historically Black institution in Florida, agrees with that approach.
Bowman also wants Harvard to analyze how many descendants of enslaved people have been accepted at the university, compared with the number of rejections. Perhaps “legacy” admissions shouldn’t be limited to children of alumni but also apply to descendants of slaves.
“They need to lean into these systematic problems because writing the check is easy,” said Bowman, cofounder of development firm HarveyReed. “Being able to challenge a system to make sure that it is leveraging its resources in a way that benefits all kids is harder work.”
Francis, the UMass Boston economist and holder of a master’s degree from Harvard, agrees with what William “Sandy” Darity and Kirsten Mullen lay out in their book “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.”
Theauthors warn that discussions about reparations should not be confused with racial equality initiatives. Reparations are intended to eliminate the wealth gap between Black and white people, something best achieved through a comprehensive federal government policy of redress.
“Local and private initiatives meant to address the legacy of slavery are well-meaning but detract from a national reparations initiative,” said Francis. “While I would applaud Harvard’s introspection and interrogation of how it benefited from the slave trade, I think the university’s time and efforts would be better spent supporting a larger, cohesive, national reparations initiative.”
Lee Pelton, the former Emerson College president who now runs the Boston Foundation, commends Harvard for taking on what he calls a “searingly honest report and an enormously complex implementation.”
“This is the first and most important step in the repair work that will follow,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Reparations may include several efforts, including recompense, remuneration, reconciliation, all of these or more.”
Other universities — including Brown and Georgetown — have tackled reparations, but none come close to the amount of money Harvard is pledging.
“Harvard’s $100 million commitment is astonishing,” said Pelton, who earned a doctoral degree in English literature from Harvard. “It is important to understand that Harvard is at the beginning — not the end — of a multiyear process to repair the harm done by its legacy of slavery and discriminatory practices.”
Makeeba McCreary, president of the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund, decided to pose the $100 million question to 20 Black and brown nonprofit leaders shehappened to be meeting with when she received my inquiry.
Two ideas from the group stood out: examine “modern-day slavery” to ensure pay equity for all Black and brown employees at Harvard, and pay off the student loans of Black and brown Harvard students, especially those who are the first generation in their family to attend college.
Other themes that emerged from the group: $100 million isn’t enough, and Harvard shouldn’t distribute the money.
“They wouldn’t know how or where it should go,” said McCreary. “Give it to philanthropies that are Black- and brown-led.”
David Howse, executive director of ArtsEmerson and Emerson College’s vice president of the Office of the Arts, said at least half of the money should go toward arts and culture, especially programs that sit at the intersection of justice and healing.
Howse name-checked a few organizations that could use the funding, such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture and The Equal Justice Initiative. He would prioritize local institutions such asCastle of our Skins, Front Porch Arts Collaborative, the Roxbury International Film Festival, and youth-focused organizations such as Boston Children’s Chorus and OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center.
He would also invest in individual artists, such as establishing a fellowship program like Titus Kaphar’s NXTHVN in New Haven.
Howse explainedwhy art matterswith an elegant quote from bassist/vocalist esperanza spalding: “The artist’s practice — of envisioning a yet-to-be reality, then collectively bringing it forth — is a practice that intends to manifest and bring forth a more ‘just future.’ ”