Two years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates reignited long-standing debates around reparations. His case for reparations details the moral and material debts Americans have accrued from centuries of profiting off of systemic racism. The country will never be whole, Coates argues, until Americans reckon with the fact that “America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary.” Reparations, in this formulation, involve a recognition of the nation’s complicity in past and present oppression as well as concrete actions to rectify those historic wrongs, to pay down those debts.
As a scholar of Catholics in the United States and as a white Catholic myself, I am keenly aware of the fact that white Catholics—the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Catholic immigrants from Europe—are among the most forceful critics of reparations. None of my ancestors owned slaves, the counterargument goes, so why should I be held responsible for paying someone else’s debt? Even if I could be connected to slavery, critics often add, be practical. What would reparations even look like 153 years after emancipation?
I’ve thus been following recent events at Georgetown University with avid admiration. Georgetown, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States, spent the past year confronting its complicity in the institution of slavery. University President John J. DeGioia convened the “Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation” in September 2015. It was already well-documented that past president and Jesuit priest Thomas F. Mulledy had authorized the sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838 to finance a failing college, slaves owned by Maryland Jesuits. The working group unearthed the extent to which this sale propelled Georgetown’s future success, identified the descendants of the slaves sold to Deep South plantations, organized teach-ins to educate the Georgetown community on these legacies, and made recommendations to the president on how best to make amends for benefits reaped from the trade in flesh.