Area universities are finding creative solutions to reckon with history of racial injustice

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(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)
(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)

More universities across the nation are facing a reckoning with their history of slavery, but some are finding creative solutions in the form of reparations.

Georgetown University announced last year it would raise $400,000 a year to benefit the descendants of enslaved people who were sold to the financial benefit of the college, according to the New York Times. Other historic institutions, such as Yale and Harvard, are also looking at creative ways to do the same.

But the solutions are not always through economic benefits.

Take for instance the Lemon Project at William & Mary.

The project has been created as a reparative measure, wrote Jody Allen, director of the Lemon Project, in an email. The Lemon Project, founded in 2009, is an initiative from the school to rectify the wrongs perpetrated against African Americans on campus through research and education.

The movement for reparations is happening across the landscape of higher education, said Sarita McCoy Gregory, chairwoman of the department of Political Science and History at Hampton University.

“This means that [higher education] is not absolved of this conversation,” she said. “Sometimes the ivory tower tends to hold itself outside of any social movement but now we are very much in the center.”

Gregory said affirmative action policies in the past were similar to the idea of reparations, where the goal was to address the systems of erasure that came with Jim Crow laws and prevented African Americans from having the resources needed to succeed.

But affirmative action policies have created their own issues.

“The way affirmative action was initially conceived is that it would address some of the inequities,” she said. “But it was even defined in a way that pitted one racial group against another, rather than acknowledging a history of racial disparity.”

Some viewed the affirmative action policies as a quota system, which was not its original intent. 

The universities are trying to find ways to address their history with slavery with other solutions in the form of reparations, whether that be through financial assistance or other resources.

“When you listen to a lot of current conversations about systematic racism, what we realize is we are talking about a gap of resources that have been compounded over multiple generations,” Gregory said. “So typically the way we think about reparations is financial, but we can also look at the ways that educational resources have been withheld from African Americans.”

Gregory said she hopes the future of reparations at colleges involves partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities that have been underserved through resources in the past.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities, such as Hampton University, started being constructed as a way for African Americans to have access to higher education. However, many of these universities lacked the same amount of federal and state grants that more “mainstream” universities received, Gregory said. 

Gregory said schools with large endowments can work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities to share resources. 

“I always air on the side that education will make a difference,” she said. “I always believe no matter how far out we are, that if we can capture the mind of one young person…they can also get an excellent education.”

So what does reparations for slavery look like and is it right?

“I think for us reparations are necessary if you’re going to advance racial justice in the country,” said Jenny Glass, director of advocacy for the ACLU of Virginia.

Glass said slave holders after the Emancipation Proclamation received reparations as did the Japanese Americans who were detained in internment camps during World War II.

While no amount of material or monetary resources can make up for the years of slavery, reconciliation will move the country toward actual justice.

H.R. 40 is a “good start to that conversation,” she added.

“The purpose for that bill is to create an commission to study slavery…and make recommendations on what reparations would look like to Congress,” Glass said.

“Reparations are something that we should be doing,” Glass said. “There are ways you can make reparative policy decisions that are going to have a financial impact for African-Americans,” she said.

One policy is the war on drugs and decriminalization of marijuana.

“So we would like to see marijuana legalized and done so in a way that mandates equitable distribution of any revenue,” Glass said. “In addition to financial reparations, you can look at a policy decision like that and make the right call.”

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