America’s long history with the “peculiar institution” of slavery stretches back to before the United States even existed, when using indentured servants was ruled as too expensive by colonial leaders. Viewed as an acceptable and far more lucrative alternative, the practice of buying and selling human beings would continue for centuries in America, only officially ending after the end of the Civil War. Even after this period, there were many who justified slavery economically and ethically. Notable cultural standpoints such as Gone with the Wind and, more notoriously, Birth of a Nation, told white America what it wanted to hear — people of color were inferior on every level, and slavery was necessary. This flawed viewpoint has largely faded from the acceptable, so perhaps the only thing surprising about colleges offering reparations to descendants of slaves is how late the timing is.
While the country has tossed the idea of reparations back and forth since the end of the Civil War, on most occasions, it has failed to deliver. One of the most prominent examples of this is the “forty acres and a mule” pledge made to former slaves during the Reconstruction era that never came to pass. Georgetown University announced plans earlier this year to raise funds to benefit the descendants of those who worked in bondage in the service of the college; they hope that, given the less racist mindset of the majority of America today, these promises will hold through. In April, undergraduates at Georgetown voted to donate $27.20 per semester towards underprivileged communities, including several inhabited by the descendants of slaves who were sold to pay off the school’s debts in 1838. Seven months later, the president of Georgetown University, John DeGioia, proposed a goal of raising $400,000 from donors to benefit the same communities.
Other colleges are joining the movement as well. At least 56 colleges participate in Universities Studying Slavery, led by the University of Virginia, an organization dedicated to address the legacy of slavery in higher education. Other colleges have made small but notable motions forward, such as removing the names of slavery supporters from buildings or dedicating new monuments. The Princeton Theological Seminary endowed $27.6 million dollars after it was revealed that the founders had used and benefited from slave labor. Harvard removed the coat of arms of a family of a slaveowner from campus and dedicated a small memorial for slaves.
The reparations movement is not without its detractors. Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader and vocal Republican, said that he didn’t see any point in paying reparations. "I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea...We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president...I don't think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, it would be hard to figure out whom to compensate."
Still, others have said that allocating funds towards poor and predominantly black communities will discourage those communities from trying to improve on their own. However, these viewpoints do not necessarily take into account how difficult it is for communities to simply improve self-sufficiently, especially given the poor federal funding devoted to redevelopment. These views also fail to recognize that the United States has not done very much to make up for slavery in itself. McConnell’s argument pointing out the civil rights movement and the presidency of Barack Obama (a presidency he opposed) holds a small amount of validity, but does not indicate any moment in American history when slavery as an institution was explicitly apologized for through words and actions. The civil rights movement and other triumphs over racism were generally broad, sweeping motions ––not things that focused on slavery itself. Chuck Collins, program director at the Institute for Policy Studies, said, “People say 'slavery was so long ago' or 'my family didn't own slaves.' But the key thing to understand is that the unpaid labor of millions –– and the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, discrimination in mortgage lending and a race-based system of mass incarceration created uncompensated wealth for individuals and white society as a whole.”
Despite criticism from many, both white and of color, reparations may be exactly what America needs. For a time, it was believed that racism was mostly dead, an idea which shattered during Charlottesville and the elections. In giving aid to descendants of slaves, universities are taking a step in shedding the rotted snakeskin of their racist pasts and finding ways to prove themselves as explicitly anti-racist. Racism is far from dead in America, but reparations may be one step in helping to overcome it.