Georgetown University’s Racial Reparations

Georgetown University recently got national attention for acknowledging its participation in, and benefit from, the institution of slavery. It seems that Georgetown Jesuits kept meticulous records of their ownership and sale of slaves. So they know exactly who was affected. The detail of that history was documented and made public by the University. It should be commended for starting a potential healing process on such a charged issue.

The university says that it will atone for its behavior by giving preferential consideration for academic admission to descendants of the 272 slaves it owned and subsequently sold. Georgetown apparently has a long history of giving preferential admissions consideration to relatives and descendants of alumni. So now descendants of the slaves they owned will get the same treatment. But is that all Georgetown needs to do? I don’t think so!

That initiative is a noteworthy baby-step along the road to fixing the wounds of racism perpetrated by that Jesuit school as well as most other public and private institutions of the time. We should honor Georgetown University leaders for beginning the effort to face the truth. Preferential consideration for admission to that expensive private university however does not constitute serious atonement for its history of engaging in human trafficking.

The university admits that it broke up those slave families and sold them into the Louisiana slave market where “they labored under dreadful conditions”. I suspect that very few of those descendants can take advantage of the preferential admissions offer. Those who can will be the ones who “beat the system” on their own and are already relatively affluent. It likely won’t have any bearing on the vast majority of descendants.

One could legitimately ask: Does its preferential admissions plan represent an ignorance by Georgetown University of the descendants’ reality, or is that exactly the intent? One could see it as an empty gesture that disrupts nothing but brings accolades for having made amends!!

Since Georgetown has acknowledged its guilt in the human tragedy of slavery, it is time for it to take the next step. It should expand the initiative by taking more concrete actions to correct the injustice it perpetrated. The school has the financial capacity and a real opportunity to show other institutions and the nation at large how to make amends in a meaningful and humane way.

Let’s ignore the horrific pain, suffering, and abuse those slaves endured at the hands of their Jesuit “owners”. Those individuals are gone and there is nothing the university can do to make things right with them. Instead let’s consider the case from a purely economic point of view. That is the only atonement that makes sense today.

The facts are:  In 1838 Georgetown University sold its slaves including men, women, and children for $115,000. According to the university’s own records, that literally kept the school open. The university has enjoyed the economic benefit of that transaction for 178 years. Therefore those slaves’ descendants have a major financial stake in what the university has become in the interim. Today Georgetown University has a net worth of a bit more than $1 billion.

So think about this:  Suppose that those 272 slaves had not been slaves at all but European businessmen willing to lend the university $115,000. And further suppose that the businessmen charged an interest rate of 5%, probably modest for the risk of that kind of investment. Today that original investment would be worth more than $800 million. Based on that scenario, I would argue that the descendants of those original slaves have a legitimate financial claim on most of today’s net worth of the university.

If Georgetown University is sincere about atoning for the economic benefit it gained through its history of human abuse and bondage, I suggest it pledge a significant financial commitment to rectifying the harm and misery it caused. That would be an honest, appropriate, and beneficial approach for the victims.

Preferential admissions consideration may be adequate for the small minority who are already relatively well assimilated into middle class American life. However, since Georgetown sold its slaves into the deep south, poverty, disadvantage, and discrimination are the likely experience of the vast majority of those descendants even today. Therefore most of its focus should be on seeking out those impoverished and disadvantaged descendants and providing them with quality education, training, and economic opportunities they likely will never get otherwise.

I recognize the path I am suggesting will be a financial burden on the university, perhaps $100 million or more. But don’t forget the financial benefits it has enjoyed from the original enslavement and sale of innocent human beings.

The university probably could raise tuition as part of a3 financial atonement strategy. Today the school only accepts about 17% of those who apply for admission. So clearly some increased tuition costs will not seriously curtail enrollment. It should also solicit financial participation from successful alumni, other benefactors, associated institutions, and the general public to provide necessary financial resources needed for its atonement program. That would probably create a good opportunity even for individual citizens to participate in setting things right.

Finally the university should refine its atonement process, and document its efforts to deal with that part of its past. If done well, Georgetown’s approach could become a model for other public and private institutions as well as individuals facing the reality of their own dark racist past.

I am just offering ideas for discussion here. There are certainly a variety of formulas for addressing the horrendous heredity we have as a slave-owning and -exploiting nation. Anything less than “owning” the past injustice and taking material steps to rectify it (yes! that means money to repair the damage) will prevent our nation from ever getting racism behind us. The leadership to change the underlying racial prejudices of both black and white Americans must begin with an outreach from the white churches, schools, and other social institutions.

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