The United States was founded on the backs of slaves and it has long operated using systems that place racial minorities, and black people in particular, at a disadvantage in ways that are almost inconceivable. Reparations may be one way to address the extreme disparity that now exists between black people, especially those descended from slaves, and those who haven’t had to contend with the same struggles.
On April 11, students at Georgetown University voted on a referendum to have a student fee of $27.20 each semester to create a reparations fund for the descendants of Georgetown’s slaves. The particular amount is meant to pay homage to the 272 that were sold to pay the university’s debts, which saved the school financially. The majority of students who took part in the vote supported the proposal, but the resolution is not binding, so the measure may not ultimately come to pass.
Regardless, the move at least reflects the fact that a large portion of Georgetown’s student body is aware that their institution exists as they know it today because of slavery. In 2017, Georgetown offered a formal apology for their complicit role in owning slaves in the first place and renamed one of their buildings after Isaac Hawkins, who was at the head of the bill of sale in 1838 when the slaves were sold. The university has been unique in its willingness to acknowledge their ties to slavery.
Nothing can fix the history of this country. It has been created on a foundation of bloodshed, stolen liberty and denying people basic human rights. However, what people can do now is acknowledge the history of the country and seek ways to redress the disparities that still exist today. It is a moral imperative for everyone in the country, not just white people or those that have a proven ancestry of slave ownership, because the record of land ownership, generational wealth, present fortune and economic viability in this country wouldn’t be what it is without years of unpaid labor on the part the slaves.
Living in America means you are reaping the benefits of slavery, even if there’s no direct proof that your family played a role in it. If Georgetown’s proposed fee actually happens, it will be largely a symbolic gesture, since by current estimation, once the total of the fee is divided up amongst the descendants of the 272 slaves it won’t amount to a great deal. However, the move is still important because it is paired with acknowledgment of history and attempts to bridge some of the inequality that still exists, with moves like offering preference in admissions to descendants of the slaves, and the creation of an African American studies department.
Recently, the topic of reparations has been a source of growing controversy on the political stage. While it may be an unrealistic goal to expect the United States to pay reparations to the descendants of all slaves, the least that can be done is to continue making strides in improving life for their descendants. The scars of slavery aren’t going to magically disappear and much less with wishful thinking that this country has already atoned for its sins.
With plagues of imbalance such as the achievement gap, the school to prison pipeline and income inequality adversely affecting black people, we still have so much work to do to bridge gaps that exist in our society, and it is predicated upon an acknowledgment of how they began, and why they still exist.