Empty Gestures At Georgetown University

One of the legacies of its Jesuit heritage is that Georgetown University kept excellent records of the slaves it sold in 1838 to keep the joint afloat. To its credit, it’s now trying to do something about it, as the climate in 2016 is to “reflect upon [Georgetown] University’s history and involvement in the institution of slavery.” Even the Jesuits had slaves back then.

Georgetown University is taking a series of historically important steps to atone for the acts of 19th-century Jesuits who held African-American men, women and children in slavery and sold 272 of them to Southern sugar plantations to keep the college that became Georgetown operating.

Regardless of whether anyone else believes that the historical atrocity of slavery should be left in the past, Georgetown, as a private institution, has chosen to deal with it today. The institution’s decision is laudable, and doesn’t require anyone else’s approval. If it makes you feel badly because it’s doing what others are not, or refuse to do, that’s your issue. Georgetown University makes its own decisions. And lives with them.

There are two primary elements to the plan. The first is to rename a building after a slave listed in the inventory of chattel as simply “Isaac,” but who volunteers from the Georgetown Memory Project contend understood his surname to be “Hawkins.”

The University has chosen to name the building “Isaac Hall,” rather than Isaac Hawkins Hall, to recognize that slaves were denied a surname by their masters. Advocates are critical of this choice, arguing that “using the first name alone repeats the racist condescension of slave holders who commonly refused to acknowledge the surnames of the human beings they owned.”

The second is that Georgetown will treat the descendants of its sold slaves as legacy admissions.

Giving descendants the same consideration we give members of the Georgetown community in the admissions process.

In other words, if your father graduated from Georgetown, you get a leg up in admissions, a finger pushing down a bit on the admission scale.

Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it “reparations.”

Folks may not like the word “reparations,” but it’s what Georgetown did. Scope is debatable. But it’s reparations.

Coates has been a strong advocate for reparations for slavery, so he may be inclined to see them wherever he can.  Elie Mystal was slightly less sanguine about the plan.

It’s a nice public relations gesture, and a nearly meaningless public relations gesture. Two things can be true at the same time.

The inner lawyer in Elie came out as he parsed the details of the plan to figure out how this might actually happen.

Here, Georgetown was really light on the details of how it would notify the descendants of these 272 people, much less actually identify them. The Jesuits kept good books, but when they sold their slaves down the river, records become fractured. Ancestry.com runs out of steam.

After 175 years, identifying descendants of the 1838 slaves borders on the impossible. And the numbers could be astronomical, raising the questions of how any particular person would prove himself to be entitled to legacy consideration, and what would suffice to establish a connection 175 years later.  But that presupposes Georgetown taking the plan seriously.

It’s an empty gesture. But so are most symbolic policies, and yet that meaninglessness does not make them unimportant. Georgetown is symbolically acknowledging the person-hood of their former captives, and acknowledging their contributions to the University.

This reflects another duality of the current climate, that symbolic “empty gestures” wrapped in social justice language like “acknowledging the person-hood” are close enough for comfort. Elie is quite right that this is a public relations ploy, at best.  Even the New York Times editorial folks figured this one out:

The university’s decision to treat the descendants essentially as legacy applicants for admissions purposes is a welcome move. But it falls short of what’s clearly needed: a scholarship fund specifically for descendants who are poor and generationally disadvantaged by the legacy of slavery from which Georgetown profited. The fund could probably be raised privately in a relatively short period of time. It would give the reconciliation effort the prominence this circumstance requires.

It’s unclear what they mean by “generationally disadvantaged,” as if the descendants of slaves were secretly stripped of the fruits of their subsequent labor, had their bank accounts and homes stolen from them generation after generation, were somehow subject to a different educational system than the kids who lived next door but weren’t descended from slaves.

This is yet another bit of the gibberish that informs the current climate, where words are mashed together to give the impression of being meaningful when they’re not. Such phrases, too, are good enough in this climate, as phrases that feel as if they’re meaningful are just as good as phrases that are meaningful.

But the Times’ thrust is that if Georgetown really wanted to do something to atone for its legacy of slavery, it could certainly let the descendants of its slaves be educated for free. The Times, curiously, suggests a private fund be created for this purpose. Why? Nobody forces Georgetown to send out tuition bills if it doesn’t want to.  As for the cost of educating those descendants of its legacy of slavery, certainly the professors and administrators will subsume it by a cut in salary.

None of this, however, is on the table. Georgetown is making a grand gesture that costs it nothing. The academics can wrap themselves up in the warm blanket of righteousness without ever missing a meal. And the human beings whose ancestors were slaves to the Jesuits will ultimately get nothing more, if anything at all, than a wink at admissions time. Big deal.

If this is what Coates means by “reparations,” then let’s put on a national dog and pony show, have a day when we all feel really bad about slavery, maybe buy a black guy a Starbucks venti frappuccino* to make us feel really, really benevolent, since it’s more than Georgetown is actually doing, and call it a day. If all it takes is an empty gesture, then let’s get it out of the way and be done with it.

As for the name of the building, pick one. No matter which one you pick, someone will call you racist for it. There is no right answer that will satisfy everyone under the current climate.

*I historically purposefully misspell Starbucks offerings as virtue signalling. It makes David Meyer-Lindenberg very sad, so I correct it rather than have to listen to him virtue signal on behalf of Millennials.

29 thoughts on “Empty Gestures At Georgetown University

  1. B. McLeod

    “And to make up for it, we will let you in to an institution that used to own slaves.” Outstanding.

    1. SHG Post author

      “Let you in” may be an overstatement. Let you in if you pass legacy muster. The idiot offspring of an alum isn’t absolutely guaranteed a seat. On the other hand, it might be better phrased as “give you the grand opportunity to pay us tuition, room and board.”

      1. B. McLeod

        But hey, maybe some of them can go to Georgetown for their Masters (history keeps trying to repeat itself).

  2. Keith

    It’s unclear what they mean by “generationally disadvantaged,” as if the descendants of slaves were secretly stripped of the fruits of their subsequent labor”

    This refers to the notion of compound interest and wealth transference from generation to generation.

    While not the thrust of your post, it’s absurd to think that the ramifications of slavery as plunder (that makes the thrust of Ta-Nehisi Coates argument) had no such effect on inherited wealth and its growth several generations downstream.

    1. SHG Post author

      There is a difference between generational transference of wealth and generationally disadvantaged. Many of us who got here too late for the party, mostly broke with weird names. From there, we build. Some were more successful than others.

      Now if the gripe is racial prejudice holding the descendants of slaves back, that’s fair enough, and applies to blacks who weren’t the descendants of slaves as well. But that’s racial prejudice, not generational disadvantage.

      1. Keith

        Since you didn’t list what that difference is, I don’t want to presume what’s in my head is the same as yours. But it doesn’t seem far fetched to say that not being able to transfer wealth puts them at a generationally disadvantaged starting point to those whose families were here an equal amount of time, but were able to transfer wealth.

        1. SHG Post author

          Put it this way, there are very few Morgans and Rockefellers. One of my best buddy’s wife is a direct descendant of Aaron Burr, and her family doesn’t have a pot to piss in (they’re so poor they’re forced to live in NJ! Can you imagine?!?). Generations equate to longevity, but don’t equate to wealth. Wealth equates wealth. If you have nothing to leave your children, nothing is what they get.

          So while it’s great to inherit vast wealth from ones forbears, most of us get some old pics and a few debs. We’re not generationally disadvantaged. We’re just not fortunate sons.

          1. Keith

            My best friend’s wife played video games on the easiest setting and still lost. True story.

            Generations may not equate to wealth, but compounding happens over time and and is highly correlated to generational ability to hold on to capital.

  3. DaveL

    I generally find Ta-Nehisi Coates to be a consistently insightful voice in the media. I might not always agree with him, but he does make me think, which is saying something in the journalism world of today. He tends to view any discussion of the practical problems of implementing reparations as an attempt to distract from the central moral issue. This all well and good for a writer, who never needs his machine to run, or his motion to be granted, or his ledger to balance.

    1. SHG Post author

      Practicalities aside, I had thought he was talking about, you know, something real when he spoke to reparations. I am surprised he can be so easily bought.

      1. Nigel Declan

        The proof of the reparations pudding will ultimately lie in the tasting.

        If a significant number of descendants of the slaves in question (however that is established) are able to obtain an education that they otherwise would not, then perhaps the reparations claim has some merit. If not, and at best a handful of students, if any, receive any benefit whatsoever, then the whole thing becomes little more than the sentimental equivalent of a class action lawsuit where no effort is made to identify the actual victims, such that all the benefits go to the do-gooders at Georgetown and the Ta-Nehisi Coateses of the world in the form of cy pres.

        1. SHG Post author

          If one is planning to either make reparations or accept it as reparations, then one would expect a plan with a reasonable likelihood of accomplishing its goal. What’s ironic with this plan is not only is it highly unlikely to work, but even if it did, it’s pretty much a big nothing. The descendants of slaves win the lottery to pay tuition to Georgetown? Yay. Now we’re all square.

  4. losingtrader

    “…maybe buy a black guy a Starbucks vente frappaccino..”

    Starbucks sympathizer!
    How pedestrian.
    If your home and office machines can’t grind fresh beans and make that vente frappucino ,
    you’ve learned nothing from your wealthy clients.
    Of course, I guess this is to be expected from a guy who rides commuter trains in bespoke suits.

      1. losingtrader

        Once again, pedestrian. If 7% of Nestle’s sales are Nespresso pods, you’re screwed.
        . I recommend the PrimaDonna model of the Delonghi brand for you. It so fits.

  5. Odder

    “If it makes you feel badly…”

    Are you really concerned about how Georgetown’s actions negatively affecting the mechanism that controls how people feel? Because that’s what you just said.


    Think about it this way: If you were speculating on people being made angry, would you say, “If it makes you feel angrily…”? Or sad, would you say, “If it makes you feel sadly…”? No, you wouldn’t.

    Drop the “ly”

    (Sorry, pet peeve of mine)

    1. Odder

      Doh! Screwed the pooch there. Should read, “Are you really concerned about Georgetown’s actions negatively affecting the mechanism that controls how people feel?”

  6. Hal

    My two greats grandfather died as a POW in Andersonville. Surely, I’m owed something for being generationally disadvantaged. Should I hit up Mssr. Coates?

    1. SHG Post author

      My ancestor, Adolph Greenfield, purportedly arrived on these shores in the 1850s. That should have guaranteed that, by my generation, I would be RICH!!! I, too, have been generationally disadvantaged. I demand a recount.

    2. Patrick Maupin

      You’re not playing the zero-sum game properly. You’re much better off because of all the resources he didn’t consume and wealth he didn’t dissipate.

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