By Adom Getachew
Over the last two decades, black organizers and activists around the world have moved reparations from the margins to the center of the political agenda. Organizers with the Movement for Black Lives included reparations in their ambitious Vision for Black Lives Platform in 2016 and pushed the Democratic candidates for president that year to embrace this demand. Their effort emerged in the context of important victories. Within the United States, reparations for the victims of forced sterilization in North Carolina and victims of police torture in Chicago have modeled successful local strategies for redress. Internationally, victory in case of reparations for British torture during the Mau Mau rebellion, which resulted in a £20 million payout, has inspired new efforts to seeks reparations for colonial injustice. The Herero and Nama peoples in Namibia are currently suing the German state for genocide between 1904-1908. At the same time, the Caribbean Community has announced that it will be seeking reparations from Britain, France, and the Netherlands for their participation in native genocide and colonial slavery.
The debate over reparations is now shaping the conversation leading up to the Democratic primaries next year, and has even seeped into an unlikely forum—David Brooks’ opinion pages at the New York Times. That reparations are thinkable and sayable within the political mainstream marks an important transformation that promises to open new spaces to reimagine racial and economic injustice. At the same time, we should all be cautious about the uses to the which reparation is put in these contexts. We should ask hard questions of the political leaders who have recently proclaimed their commitment to reparations. If reparations are going to be transformative, it must be more than an empty litmus test.
Here at Scholars for Social Justice, we believe that one way of deepening the debate about reparations is to proliferate the sites where claims of repair might be made. As academics, we have been particularly concerned to highlight the role reparations can play in universities and colleges. While universities are often viewed as ivory towers, far from everyday politics, the university is both deeply embedded in structures of racial hierarchy and inequality and remains a crucial site for reimagining education and society more broadly. First, recent historical studies have shown the centrality of slavery and settler-colonialism to the founding and financing of colleges and universities in the United States. Universities, like the rest of country, were founded on stolen indigenous land, slave labor built many institutions of higher education and the global and national trade in which slavery and colonialism was central provided key sources of funding for institutions. Second, institutions of higher education actively participated in the perpetuation of ideologies of race that naturalized and justified racial exclusion and domination. Theories of racial inferiority developed and sustained within the academy had consequences beyond the ivory towers as they fueled popular knowledge and shaped the contours of political debate. Third, while often viewed as gateways for upward mobility, institutions of higher education reproduce and reinforce hierarchies of race and class. The recent college admissions scandal and the even wider structures of legacy admissions that lie beneath attest to the ways that universities reproduce privilege.
Across the country, students, faculty and community organizers are already engaged in pursuing a reparations agenda within the university context. At Georgetown University, the sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838 the saved the institution from financial ruin has spurred an on-going campus-wide conversation about what redress requires. In 2017, Georgetown apologized and promised preferential admissions to the descendants of slaves. This spring, students will vote on a referendum that institutes at $27.20 per student fee in “honor of the 272 people sold by Georgetown.” The collected funds will be allocated to services that benefit the descendants. At the University of Chicago, graduate students have uncovered how Stephen Douglass used profits from his plantation in Mississippi to purchase land for the first campus. While the initial institution, founded in 1856, collapsed indebted and bankrupt, the network of donors and faculty that emerged from the first University of Chicago helped to constitute its successor in 1890. Organizers with the Reparations at University of Chicago Working Group have tied their findings to more recent histories of displacement and partnered with efforts like the city-coalition to pass a Community Benefits Agreement for the Obama Presidential Center.
Along with these reparations projects at Georgetown and Chicago, student and workers movements at the other campuses are holding their universities accountable for their employment, development, and investment practices. At Harvard and Columbia, graduate workers are in the midst of historic efforts to bargain their first contracts while their comrades at the University of Illinois-Chicago won important victories in the contract fight after going on strike. At Yale, students are demanding that the university divest from carbon and Puerto Rican Debt.
Joining this wider conversation and outlining a broadly-framed reparations agenda, SSJ launched its platform called “Reparations in Higher Education” on April 7th, 2019. Modeled on the Vision for Black Lives Platform, it examines the university’s different roles such as employer, neighbor, and investor to trace paths toward racial justice and equality. We take the view that reparations are not just a matter of settling past accounts, but of transforming existing institutional structures that reproduce racial hierarchy and inequality. We encourage you to visit the platform here and to share with your colleagues and students.