Though slavery has passed, its after effects are still being felt today. The United States was built on slavery, it pervades our literature and it has left a profound degree of persistent racial stratification. Sometimes, slavery even makes the news. This Saturday marked the 178th anniversary of the day Georgetown University sold nearly 300 slaves in order to keep the school from bankruptcy after financial troubles.
Students and faculty on campus continue to rally for reparations to be paid for the school’s involvement in the trade of human lives. Although Georgetown has removed the names of the figureheads responsible for the transaction from their buildings, the groups argue it is not enough. Georgetown should answer the call of its students and faculty and take just action in giving reparations to the descendants of the people sold to profit the university and keep it afloat.
Gestures and apologies are obviously gravely overdue for Georgetown as well as for the United States government. But those in Congress might ask whether reparations — a controversial means of penance with much more tangible consequences — are deserved, beneficial or appropriate. The argument in favor of reparations for the horrifying actions of those in the past is not new. Each time a story surfaces of another institution or figure tied to slavery, the argument is revitalized. Many other historic colleges — including Harvard, Columbia and the University of Virginia — have acknowledged having a hand in the slave trade, but have yet to offer recompense for their mistakes. No one can hope to escape from the marred past of this nation, and no one should look to escape. History informs and teaches so that all learn from the injustice of our predecessors.
The United States could never do anything to make amends for robbing human lives and degrading them as objects under the foot of our Founding Fathers and the rest of the nation. Because slave owners benefitted from owning human beings, and families across the country still live off of that old money, the issue cannot die. The economy of the country, and particularly the agricultural powerhouse of the South, flourished by the sweat and blood of slaves. The most appropriate symbolic gesture of apology would be to repay the debt owed for the billions generated by their hands properly — with the money that they produced.
Even in the modern era are black people in the United States still systematically disadvantaged and targeted for the color of their skin. The gesture of reparations for a heinous violation of human rights will begin to show some sliver of repentance, although it is still far too late. Going forward, the United States must do its best to address these issues, and paying rightful reparations would be a great starting point.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 18 print edition. Email Connor Borden at [email protected]