A Georgetown Student Defends the Reparations Referendum

A Jesuit statue is seen in front of Freedom Hall, formerly named Mulledy Hall, on the Georgetown University campus.Jacquelyn Martin / AP

The First Reparations Attempt at an American College Comes From Its Students

Earlier this month, Georgetown University undergraduates voted overwhelmingly to tax themselves $27.20 per semester to create a fund that will support the descendants of the enslaved people from whom the university profited. The fact that students may be ahead of the school in paying reparations, Saahil Desai reported, is evidence of just how little the university has done to make amends for its misdeeds.

In this, Georgetown is not alone. Many antebellum colleges—Harvard, Brown, Rutgers, the University of Virginia, William & Mary—have begun to grapple with their slaveholding past, Desai wrote, but none has yet acted on a plan that transcends symbols to atone for the wrong it has done.

I’m a current senior at Georgetown University, but perhaps of more immediate relevance, I’m one of the organizers of the recent campaign for the referendum, Establish a New GU272 Legacy and Create the Reconciliation Contribution. Specifically, I’m the person in charge of moderating our social-media accounts. You can imagine, then, that I have some perspective on what the public has had to say about our initiative.

When your article asked “Why are Georgetown students paying for reparations?” (emphasis implied, but my own), it marked probably the 600th time in the past week that I’ve heard that question. By and large, the most common critique we as a group of students have received is that students shouldn’t be the ones to pay for the university’s past mistakes—that we’re letting the administration “off the hook” by establishing this fund. So let me be clear: This is not that.

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I have no interest in seeing Georgetown front the money promised by this referendum, because I have no interest in seeing Georgetown co-opt this referendum as its own contribution. I have a lot of interest in seeing Georgetown take reparative action that requires executive power beyond the scope of my capacity as an undergraduate student. I’m floored by the idea that no one seems to have either the creativity or the willingness to imagine what that looks like.

The national angle that journalists have been tying our referendum to is H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. But let me suggest last month’s admissions scandal as an alternative. For a split second there, it seemed as if we were actually invested in examining the way in which institutions like—and including—Georgetown systematically privilege the white and wealthy, and foster environments where one particular kind of student is meant to thrive. And then we moved on.

In your article, Jody Allen, a professor at William & Mary, says, “People think of reparations and they think checks. But that’s only part of it. Are you providing courses around these issues? Are you diversifying the faculty? Are you supporting student organizations?” I wonder whether it would be more productive to ask my school’s administration these questions than to ask whether it will or won’t enact our referendum.

I invite my campus’s administration, as well as those of all American universities with a slaveholding past, to take this moment to consider how their campuses have been shaped by histories of slavery, colonialism, and everything else that the comment sections keep getting mad about. Because undoing that damage is going to take a force much more powerful than the undergraduate student government.

Karla Leyja
Washington, D.C.