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Education is key to equality

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WASHINGTON — It's a subject I'll no doubt be returning to, but two things stand out in the responses to my recent column on reparations for slavery.

One, almost exclusively from white readers, argues against reparations — whether as a matter of equity, of logic or of law. How, they ask, can moral obligations be inherited? How can any present-day American be held responsible for what his dead great-great-grandfather did to my dead great-great-grandfather?

And if such debts can be passed along from one generation to the next, doesn't it follow that virtue must be similarly heritable? Shouldn't, therefore, the descendants of whites who bitterly opposed slavery, and of the men who fought and died in the Civil War that ended it, be exempted from their portion of reparations taxes?

The obvious rejoinder is that the debt is owed not by Americans but by America.

If a judgment is awarded against your city for, say, the negligent death of a jail inmate, the fact that the inmate was already dead when you moved to town does not exempt you from the taxes for your share of the award.

But it is the initial responses from black readers that I really want to talk about. The earlier column had raised the question, first, of who should actually receive the reparations — individuals, families, organizations, trust funds — and, second, of how the money should be spent.

The answers so far have been startlingly modest. The most consistent among them: education.

One woman thought she was being pretty radical when she said the reparations payments should go toward underwriting the education of African-Americans from preschool to high school and from tech school or college to graduate school. She might put a limit on the number of years the opportunity would remain open and on the number of generations that might be eligible. But no limit on the money. All tuition, fees, housing allowances — everything — would be paid to students in good standing.

Several would look first to the creation of excellent public schools in the inner cities, abetted by exemplary tutorial programs — whatever it would take to transform black America educationally.

Their point was that without education, black Americans will remain perpetually behind.

And I don't doubt it. But I also don't doubt that the most devastating educational problem facing African-Americans is not how to get college and graduate school paid for but how to get academically disaffected children and their families to take fuller advantage of opportunities that already exist.

What would reparations do for the youngsters who drop out of free public high schools? What would reparations do to change the too-prevalent view that academic exertion, careful speech and delayed gratification are "white"?

Ah, my respondents say, but what they have in mind are excellent schools, with low teacher-pupil ratios, not the blackboard jungles of big-city America.

Moreover, what the reparations-for-education backers demand are things that ought to be happening anyway. No child, whether slave-descended or not, should enter kindergarten unprepared to learn or be left without needed tutorial help or be denied college for want of money. All children should be given the advantage of the one thing we know can lead to academic gains: smaller class sizes.

That the rich have greater access to these things than the poor is undisputed. But what does it matter whether the disadvantaged poor are descended from slaves or from families idled by petered-out coal mines?

I accept completely the idea that education — excellent and fully funded — can make the critical difference. It ought to be furnished, however, not because of debts owed to or incurred by our ancestors, but because America needs its citizens to be educated and productive.

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com