On Oct. 22, The School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) at Indiana University in Bloomington hosted its second annual Moving the World Forward Conference as part of the Public Policy and International Affairs Program (PPIA). This past weekend, I was able to attend this conference. The convention brought together over 80 participants from across the nation for four days to learn about graduate school and inspire leadership in public service. In addition to the intellectual diversity provided by each student attendant dedicated to advancing the cause of justice and equality, the speaker lineup proved to be extraordinary. Ta-Nehisi Coates — 2015 MacArthur “Genius” Grant awardee and author of the book Between the World and Me — was one of the speakers whom I was able to converse with.
Following Mr. Coates’ visit and talk at Cornell last year on his piece in The Atlantic entitled The Case for Reparations; I was interested in hearing more about his views on recovering America’s “soul” and cultivating a new social consciousness. Since 1987, intellectuals have debated the most effective way of providing reparations to groups who have been historically discriminated against. As the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it, reparations are “money that a country or group that loses a war pays because of the damage, injury, deaths, etc., it has caused.” However, there are several questions raised by this definition that have been contested by many political and social organizations within the United States.
The first argument relates to economics. How could we possibly pay every individual who has been wronged by the United States when we are already trillions of dollars in debt? Additionally, how could we decide who deserves reparations, and would favoring one minority group over another minority group lead to greater inequality and greater tensions?
The second argument is structural. What good does money do if the institutions surrounding an individual oppress them under an inescapable, invisible system? Would reparations be paid similarly to how Japanese-Americans were granted money after being held in internment camps during World War II? The third argument is moral. Would reparations be seen as too little, too late, such as when, to appease their moral consciousness, Germany issued money to Jews less than a decade following the Holocaust? Will such policies advance “the greater good” for society? What is the greater good? Who’s “good” is considered “greater” and who gets to decide that?
After talking with Ta-Nehisi Coates, speakers, panelists and participants at SPEA’s Moving the World Forward conference, I realized that the solutions to problems facing our country today lie not in finding the right answers, but in collaborating to formulate the right questions. We must be patient. When trying to solve issues of social injustice, such as through economic reparations, we must take a scientific inquiry approach and understand that we cannot rush into decision making, we must look at issues more holistically. Therefore, the questions needed to be asked not only “how do we solve this now” but also, in the long term. We cannot just put a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. When will we reach a place where the dreams of equality held by students across this nation be realized to help cultivate a new inclusive cultural, civic and moral imagination?
One example of a systemic issue that Coates discusses is the practice of redlining — a federal initiative set on granting select loans under a restrictive covenant primarily to African Americans seeking home ownership. Ultimately, the Fair Housing Act abolished the practice in 1968 because of the obvious racism inherent in this policy. Yet this is simply a short-term solution. Short-term solutions — such as abolishing racist practices — are wonderful, yes. But what is being done on a macro scale to combat the system that put redlining in place to begin with?
I believe there will come a time when individuals no longer feel afraid to speak honestly and vulnerably in inter-group dialogue to help cultivate a country with policies that dutifully serves its people — all its people. The moment when truth speaks to power, when courage meets capacity, when faith dates uncertainty, when leadership courts destiny, when education engages passion, when justice marries empathy, that will be the day when we can claim that we have indeed moved the world forward.
Jeremiah Grant is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com. Gates & Ladders appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.