Editorial: Atoning for a shameful past
- Georgetown University announced a plan for reparations.
- Descendants of 272 enslaved African people will have "preferential treatment" in admissions.
- The university must include those descendants in the conversation.
Those who opine on such things have mostly touted Georgetown University’s plan for reparations to atone for the fact that its foundation, success and considerable power is owed to enslaved African people.
On Sept. 1, the university announced its plans to make reparations because it was built by slaves and because it sold 272 enslaved people in 1838 to stave off catastrophic debt.
This, of course, is America’s story, though not one that has been told truthfully.
It has been buried, avoided and blatantly lied about by a white institution that for varied, obvious and complex reasons, including racism and white guilt, will not face the ugliness of this country’s past.
It has been highly preferable to celebrate a narrative of freedom. And now, a call to "Make America Great Again!"
University president John DeGioia announced Georgetown would: create an Institute on the Study of Slavery and its Legacies; commission a memorial to honor the 272 people sold; rename two of the buildings now named after the university presidents who used and sold enslaved people; and provide preferential treatment in admissions to the descendants of those who built its college.
The recognition and first steps to acknowledge Georgetown’s part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade cannot fully ameliorate the debts this nation owes to former slaves and their descendants.
And the plan is incomplete and the planners remiss if so-called reparations are conceived and carried out without first welcoming the descendants of those 272 slaves to contribute to the conversation.
Because when a powerful university unilaterally names the conditions upon which it will carry out reparations, without considerable input from those to whom it is atoning, another institutional system is born.
Activist Samantha Master, of the Black Youth Project, calls Georgetown’s offering a “halfhearted attempt at contrition.” She qualifies: “This is not an avenue to abdicate responsibility or complicity, and this doesn’t mean don’t try — it means try harder.”
The violent devastating history of slavery will not be atoned so simply. The work won’t be done through mere gestures; future generations must tackle the difficult work necessary to untangle institutional racism born of slavery.
Denise Horn, of Simmons College in Boston, said, “We need to recognize that our core institutions — educational, economic and civic — have all been built upon slavery. Part of the legacy of slavery and institutional racism has been an unequal access to education in this country.”
Our educational, economic and civic institutions must make reparations. And we must see these steps collectively lead to a new era of peeling away layers of deadly denial. We must be painfully honest about the brutality of slavery and its devastating reverberations today — simple to write, but difficult, complex and often painful work to carry out.
The major challenge for institutions genuine in their commitment to making reparations — and for us as a community, state and nation — is the tendency of the institution to suppose it knows what is best for communities without seeking input from them.
Such may be the case with Georgetown and the descendants of 272 former slaves on whose backs the university built its considerable wealth and power.
Joe Stewart, a descendant of one of the 272 enslaved human beings sold in 1838, told campus officials at a community meeting that the descendants must be involved in the university’s decisions around reparations moving forward.
“Our attitude is nothing about us, without us,” Stewart said.