Right-wing gadfly David Horowitz struck at Brown University in 2001, buying a provocative ad in the Brown Daily Herald titled “10 Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea–And Racist Too.” The ad contained twisted formulations suggesting, for example, that African Americans owe whites a debt for liberating them from slavery. In response, a group of angry students stole an entire day’s run of the newspaper, setting off a national media frenzy debating race and the limits of free speech.
But against all odds, this Horowitz fantasy scenario ultimately led to positive moral and intellectual development. Brown’s incoming president, Ruth Simmons, is said to have realized that the flap over Horowitz’s ad could be a “teaching moment.” And there was something else: Brown, founded in 1764, had known ties to slavery and the slave trade, even though the topic was absent from the university’s official history. It was particularly striking that Simmons, the Ivy League’s first black president and the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, shared her office in University Hall with a portrait of one-time slave owner James Manning, Brown’s first president.
So Simmons created the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, made up of faculty, administrators, and students, and charged it in April 2003 with examining Brown’s ties to slavery and making a serious study of the reparations issue.
But getting students involved proved difficult. Brown’s committee strove to encourage student participation and several undergraduates contributed research. But even as events and speakers were widely advertised, many students opted not to take part in a rare opportunity to engage with history in a meaningful way. While over 300 people turned for a lecture by historian John Hope Franklin, attendance at committee events was often dominated by locals unaffiliated with Brown. Even when the report came out last fall to national media coverage, apathy stubbornly persisted. Forty percent of students in a Brown Daily Herald poll said they had not heard of or were uninterested in the committee.
However high-minded they are, institutions undertaking these types of historical inquiries should expect criticism. At one slavery and justice forum at Brown, a neo-Nazi group showed up to denounce the “exercise in white guilt.” One letter-writer told the committee, “You disgust me, as you disgust many other Americans. Slavery was wrong, but at that time it was a legal enterprise. It ended, case closed.” And columnist Thomas Sowell of the conservative Hoover Institution asserted (backed up by zero original reporting) that Brown’s effort was a classic example of “race-hustling” and “no academic exercise of scholarly research.”