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.