On April 11, undergraduates will vote on a referendum to create a $27.20 per semester student fee to create a fund that would benefit the descendants through education and health care initiatives in the Louisiana and Maryland locales where many of them still live. If the measure passes, and the university’s board of directors approves, it will mark the first time a major American institution has gone beyond the platitudes of “dialogue” and actually compensated the victims of slavery. And it comes at a moment, not entirely coincidentally, when the conversation about America’s racial reckoning has suddenly emerged as a subject many progressives are using to winnow the sprawling field of Democrats in the 2020 presidential campaign.
“What is happening right now on Georgetown’s campus is a reflection of a larger political climate, in which, I think, people are taking seriously what anti-racist action looks like,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African-American studies and a member of the president’s working group. “So it’s not just being nice to each other or saying racism is a bad thing. It’s about actually taking account and responsibility for the ways that these decisions and processes in the past shape contemporary life.”
And while the Georgetown student fee, which would raise about $400,000 in the first year, does not come close to matching the multibillion-dollar price tags of the national reparations projects being discussed by presidential hopefuls, its mere existence indicates the degree to which an idea once thought to be impractically extreme has now moved into the mainstream. (On Monday, Senator Cory Booker introduced a bill to study racial reparations for African-Americans, a companion proposal to one offered in the House by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee.)
William Darity Jr., a professor of public policy at Duke University and one of the leading scholars on the economics of reparations, said he was “admiring” of the student efforts, while also pushing them to lay the groundwork for a nationwide effort that avoids “piecemeal” solutions. “We do need to move away from viewing this as a matter of individual guilt or individual responsibility that can be offset by individual payments, towards the recognition that this is a national responsibility and a national obligation that must be met by the federal government,” he said.