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Repaying our past

Last week, the Office of the Provost hosted a major academic symposium in Rubenstein Library titled “American Universities, Monuments, and the Legacies of Slavery.” During the two-day event, scholars, students and community leaders from both Duke and other universities engaged in dialogue about the importance of remembering and rectifying past institutional wrongs. The final discussion of the symposium, titled “The Arc of Justice: What Universities Ought to Do About Reparation,” specifically focused on how institutions with historical links to slavery and white supremacy can atone for their past through an active reparations program, both symbolic and financial. At Duke, an institution that has had an active role in educating myriads of white supremacists as well as having supported Jim Crow segregation, we should heed such discussions and consider how we as a university community can institute some form of reparations to repay for our past wrongs. 

American universities have unfortunately had an extremely active role—and in many instances continue to do so—in perpetrating and supporting systems of slavery and racial oppression. Many medical schools in the 19th century, for instance, depended upon the bodies of slaves to carry out dissections and in some gruesome instances, live human experimentation. Duke, supposedly a leader in higher private education in the American South, continued to institute a segregationist admissions policy right up until the fall of 1963. Most famously, Georgetown recently acknowledged its role in selling nearly three hundred black men, women and children into slavery in the Deep South during the Antebellum period. 

Given the egregious institutional wrongs committed by universities like Duke, some form of reparations program would do well to atone for our role in oppressing people of color. As the academic panelists during the discussion pointed out, this can take the form of symbolic reparations, such as a public acknowledgement by the administration and removing the effigies of certain disturbing racist figures—perhaps best represented by the University’s decision to remove Robert E. Lee from the Chapel last year. However, this form of reparations fails to consider the lasting, near permanent socio-economic damage institutions like Duke have wreaked upon black individuals. Studies have shown that even within our supposedly “post-racial” society, white households on average possess almost sixteen times the wealth of black families—a testament to the continued persistence of institutionalized racism. 

Though some may argue that reparations would be impractical and unprecedented, past historical evidence suggests that reparation programs are indeed feasible and can assist in healing the wounds caused by institutional evils. The U.S government famously instituted reparations to victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment—a government sponsored program of human experimentation on black men—during the 1990s. Japanese Americans who were interned in concentrations camps, likewise, received reparations from the government during the 1980s. Though no amount of money can restore the dignity of the myriads of black individuals who were oppressed by American universities, some form of financial reparations such as generous scholarships funds, institutional donations and direct pay checks to their descendants would help the process of racial healing. 

At a University dedicated to diversity and creating a safe environment for all students, we as a campus community should seek to further discussion on how to best atone for our past and present institutional role in perpetrating systems of racism. A reparations program, as well as an active, open acknowledgement on the part of the institution would help to restore the humanity and dignity of those victims forgotten within our University narrative who were abused by the University. 

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