Should Black Students in Wisconsin Receive Free College as Reparations for Slavery?

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The University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison has long been committed to diversity and inclusion, but a new set of demands by a group of black students – the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) – insist that none of the university’s attempts to address racial justice have gone far enough, in what may be the most absurd set of student demands yet.

As we read in this AP story, the student group demands that the university provide free education to black students because “blacks were legally barred from education during slavery.” And when ASM demands free education, that does not just mean free tuition. They insist that housing also be free and that black students should pay none of the fees that other students must pay.

Are these students even aware that there never was slavery in Wisconsin? Or that the state actually refused a federal order to enforce the odious Fugitive Slave Act in 1854? (You can read about that in this fascinating Tenth Amendment Center article.) Have they considered the fact that the ancestors of many Wisconsin taxpayers fought in the Union army, many of them being badly wounded or killed? The famous Iron Brigade, for instance, contained three Wisconsin regiments. It suffered heavy casualties in many battles.

When you think about it, these vociferous students are insisting that additional costs be heaped on residents of Wisconsin, none of whom ever had anything to do with slavery and some of whose ancestors who paid the ultimate price in fighting against it, in order that current students, many of whose ancestors never experienced slavery, can have a free college education. Is there any hint of justice there?

What this tells us is that the education given to ASM was terribly defective. It has filled them not with a desire to strive for things (including education) on their own, but to demand it as an entitlement that other people must be taxed to provide for them. They have the exact opposite of the philosophy of Frederick Douglass, who declared that all the black man should want from the government is to be left alone.

The students also demand that UW admit many more black students lest, as Tyriek Mack (author of the resolution) states, the university’s “racial composition remain stagnant.” According to ASM, black students deserve a racial preference so they’ll no longer be “underrepresented.” Very well, but what about the possibility that when students think they can count on “affirmative action” to get them places in top universities, they won’t work nearly as hard in their K-12 education as they otherwise would? That was just what University of California sociologist John Ogbu found when he studied black students from wealthy suburban families in Ohio. His book Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study in Academic Disengagement showed the serious hidden cost to racial preferences.

If the ASM students bothered to read Frederick Douglass, John Ogbu, or others who have argued that blacks – and indeed everyone – should stop demanding things for free and improve themselves so they can earn what they want, my guess is they’d get angry. Perhaps the greatest failing of our educational system is that students don’t learn to deal with views contrary to theirs. UW-Madison is no different, and the university’s administration will probably try to mollify these students.

The right move would be to tell them “no” and suggest that they use their time for productive learning.

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