What does it look like to tackle the lack of opportunity and reparations for descendents of slaves?
The Student Center for Reconciliation and Diversity (SCRD) hosted a workshop entitled “40 Acres and a Mule: America’s Unfulfilled Promise” at Azusa Pacific on Oct. 9. The workshop, known as “Reparations,” included interactive dialogue and an educational experience concerning the subject of reparations for descendents of African American slaves.
The title of the event refers to a promise made in 1865 following the Civil War. The promise entailed allotting freed people 40 acres of land and a mule after the war. However, former President Andrew Johnson reversed it, no longer redistributing the land that was formerly agreed upon.
Joshua Cantong, an intern for SCRD, discussed why he believes this topic is important.
“‘Reparations’ is especially important because it’s a conversation in the social justice domain,” Cantong said. “It allows us to talk about America and America’s responsibility in regards to the condition of the theft of opportunity of the formerly enslaved community.”
Cantong said this kind of workshop is especially relevant now, due to the growing seriousness of reparations.
“Anytime we can talk about racial justice is good because we need the grassroots knowledge and for people to build awareness of these things to bring about social change,” Cantong said.
Cantong asked questions that the workshop focused on, including: “What is America’s relationship with their formerly enslaved people? What is America’s responsibility to close gaps in social conditions that are caused by the nation’s treatment of the African American community?”
The workshop began with a short presentation on the background of slavery, which led into small group discussions about what people knew about the topic of reparations.
Kenneth Waters, the associate dean for the School of Theology, noted how Japanese-Americans were given monetary compensation and a formal apology for their internment during the 1940s, and acknowledged the same with Native Americans and Jewish people.
However, he said African Americans have not been given any sort of reparations along those lines, even with the vast history of slavery.
“In addition to compensation, I think reparation is fastened to repairing the system. It’s the system itself—that merit—that determined the status of people,” Waters said.
An activity called Opportunity Cup was also presented, in which participants had a cup and filled out pieces of paper based on different aspects of opportunity. This ranged from socioeconomic status, career goals, healthcare and educational attainment.
Cantong went around the room, picked cups at random and took them away. He explained that with every second that went by, the opportunity that people originally had decreased more and more because their cup was taken away. However, everyone else had the same opportunity they started with.
Cantong asked probing follow-up questions of the groups: “Is this assumption correct that where people are in social hierarchy is merely determined by how hard they work? Does this idea of a meritocracy fail us?”
He connected these questions and the Opportunity Cup activity to another question, asking, “How does the concept of a meritocracy fail to account for the disadvantaged state of the African American community?”
Tayo Agbalaya, president of the Student Government Association, made an analogy in response. He depicted a track meet where everyone was lined up to race, except three of the racers were on treadmills. The others finished the race, while the three on the treadmill were running just as hard, yet going nowhere.
“Then they’re expected to get off the treadmill and get to the finish line—their merit does not equal their success at the time,” Agbalaya said.
Near the end of the workshop, each group was asked to come up with their own definition of what reparations meant to them and write them down on a poster.
One group wrote, “Reparations means repairing institutional systems to create opportunities for those who have been oppressed.”
Contong closed with an applicable statement, saying that reparations need three ends: acknowledgement, restitution and closure. He recognized that these are steps that people can take personally, and also steps the country can take as a proper response.