If Michael Jordan scored ten points in a game during his prime, we’d be disappointed. If his teammate Dennis Rodman scored ten, we’d be impressed. The difference is expectations. We expected so little of Rodman, as we do white people on issues of race. Georgetown University is now an anomaly and trailblazer in academia, after the school recently apologized for its role in slavery. The University renamed two buildings after slaves and will now give preference in admissions to descendants of the 272 slaves the school sold in 1838 to settle its debts. It pains me to criticize the university in any way –sincerely– because their actions are lightyears ahead of other institutions. But that just shows how little white folks have to do in order to impress us.
Georgetown University owes its existence to plantations the Jesuits operated –in the name of Jesus, I’m sure– to finance operations and the 272 slaves sold in 1838 to settle the school’s debts at that time. There is no way to erase these offenses. The hope is for some meaningful form of repair toward the untold damage done and that is not what Georgetown has offered. Renaming buildings does not repair the damage done. Giving preference in admissions is cute but the children and grandchildren of Georgetown alumni already receive that perk. Indeed, to receive in 2017 what those who (largely) benefitted from the system of slavery have received for generations is not a radical effort at repair. Still, the most important lesson in this ordeal has largely been overlooked.
Georgetown fails to understand that slavery was a system, not an individual circumstance. That system impacted all black people and their descendants, not just the 272 sold in 1838. Georgetown could only benefit from the sale of those 272 slaves because it participated in a system that made all black people subject to a similar fate. To solely acknowledge the harm done to the descendants of those 272 slaves is tantamount to planting an atomic bomb in one home and refusing to acknowledge the damage done to the entire city which that bomb decimated. It is to deny benefiting from the other slaves that worked the Jesuit plantations that financed the school and the system of slavery as a whole. The life outcomes of the 273rd slave cannot be divorced from the 272 acknowledged by the University.
Even the best known attempts at reparations in the American context are laughable, at best. This is merely the latest chapter in a larger story. But Georgetown is at least pursuing some substantive efforts toward atonement and that makes the institution rare. I want to praise them and perhaps should, but I am conflicted. If I criticize the University, well-meaning whites will undoubtedly be frustrated. They will think, understandably, that any attempt at repair –rare as it may be– is not rewarded but scorned. So why bother? If I praise the University, however, I signal that such paltry efforts at repair satisfy the requirements of true justice. That is one hell of a quandary to live in and yet one more burden black people are asked to carry.
Ultimately we must come to accept, as a nation, that the legacy of slavery is far more dramatic than we have acknowledged. Many have just now begun to understand that academia is yet another staple of American greatness that owes its existence also to slavery. We fail to grasp how deeply our banking, manufacturing and various other sectors are rooted in slavery. More troubling, we fail to discern how damaging its impact was for people of color, even to the present day. Our view is further distorted when we consider the tremendous progress black people have made in this country. It is because we fail to discern the true depth of it all that we struggle to approach repair in a meaningful way. For the sake of survival, black people cannot wait for others to understand. Black power requires committed action, even when others refuse to render justice.