There’s an irony to the uproar over the claim that institutions of higher learning are advancing critical race theory to suppress white people. The reality is that many colleges and universities still struggle to make amends for their racism — or even recognize that amends need to be made. While researching and publishing facts about an institution’s ties to slavery is important and praiseworthy, this should be the bare minimum for colleges and universities that are committed to racial justice. Once past wrongs are identified, these institutions should develop and implement plans for restitution.
Racial reckonings are happening at many colleges and universities across the United States. The University of Richmond is now taking steps to mark and protect a burial ground for enslaved persons, which previous leadership knowingly desecrated. Students, faculty and staff have also lobbied to remove two names from school buildings — the name of a slave owner, who is considered one of the founders of what became the University of Richmond, and the name of a segregationist who advocated for eugenics. While the university created signage marking the burial grounds, and is discussing ways to further memorialize the dead, the university’s board has refused to remove the names of the slave owner and of the eugenicist — a noted historian — from the buildings, despite sustained pressure.
Reparations are the most progressive and meaningful actions universities can take.
At a time when many of the nation’s public-facing institutions are grappling with what it means to become anti-racist, an increasing number of colleges and universities are finally acknowledging that white supremacy has been encoded into their land, built into their environment, and culture.
But in too many cases, acknowledging the racism at their institution’s roots has been mere lip service, while action that could bring justice to victims and begin to right the wrongs of the past is halting or nonexistent.
Over 80 institutions of higher education — including the University of Richmond — have joined the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium, created and led by the University of Virginia. The consortium builds on the pioneering work of Brown University, which began studying its own complicity in slavery in 2003 for a report published in 2006. And recently, Virginia legislators passed a law that requires five public institutions — the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, Longwood University, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Virginia Military Institute — to “make reparations through scholarships or community-based economic development and memorial programs.”
These colleges and universities, along with others elsewhere, are hoping that reparations in the form of preferred admission as well as scholarships and other financial aid will not only atone for the past but also help address issues of inequitable access to higher education and financial disparities in paying for that education. While there are still plenty of questions surrounding whether this approach will produce tangible results, the legal accountability is a welcome feature that will go a long way in ensuring meaningful action.
Reparations are the most progressive and meaningful actions universities can take. But the implementation of reparations is an ongoing challenge. For example, Georgetown University officials made headlines in 2019 when they announced the creation of a $400,000-a-year reparations fund after it was widely reported the school had once sold 272 enslaved men, women, and children for the equivalent of $3.3 million in today’s dollars in order to remain financially solvent. Georgetown, which is a participant in the USS consortium, plans to invest this money to benefit descendants indirectly, through strengthening community services including health clinics.
But to the descendants of those enslaved persons, $400,000 a year in community investment is a paltry sum, particularly given the university’s $1.5 billion endowment. Georgetown students have critiqued the plan on the basis that it “transforms the fund intended to repay a debt into a philanthropy effort.” As one student put it, “The fear is that the university will use these funds for their own purposes … The university is trying to control the narrative, and we’re trying to prevent that.” Georgetown students created their own proposal for handling reparations: 66 percent of the student body voted to levy a $27 student fee to be paid directly to the descendants. But the university has thus far chosen not to pursue this approach.
Making direct cash payments to descendants is the most straightforward approach to reparations. If higher education leaders decide on a different approach, the burden is on them to demonstrate how their alternative approach will produce tangible results. Moreover, leaders often act as though universities — particularly those with large endowments — must choose between paying reparations or pursuing community development efforts to respond to local racial disparities in health, wealth and education.
That is a false choice. They can and should do both.
As we wrote in a recent Brookings report, institutions like the University of Richmond have the capacity to do heavy-lifting in addressing racial disparities through their sheer size as an employer — to say nothing of their ability to leverage their assets and procurement and contracting power. There is no reason why colleges and universities cannot pursue a multi-pronged approach to reparations and racial justice.
Nevertheless, while the mechanics of reparations are important, we cannot allow the best to be the enemy of the good — especially when that means lost momentum.
For every college or university that is demonstrating meaningful commitment to restitution, there are many others with an explicit history of being complicit in slavery and white supremacy that are now quietly hoping to avoid accountability altogether. Without unrelenting pressure, many leaders in higher education will be forever content with forming task forces, drafting reports and publishing committee recommendations — while never taking the bold action required to formally address the injustices of the past. In the words of a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, most universities “will do as little as they can get away with.” It is our job to ensure that these schools do the most, not the least.
In the end, acknowledging previous wrongs is a crucial first step in establishing racial justice. But now it’s time for universities complicit in slavery to put their money where their mouth is, and pay the restitution that is owed.