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Georgetown University announces reparations fund for descendants of slaves

Georgetown University has announced a plan to establish a $400,000 annual fund intended to serve as a form of reparations. The money will support the descendants of 272 slaves that the university sold in 1838, when finances were dire, and will provide funding for health clinics and schools in the impacted communities, according to The New York Times. Six months ago, Georgetown students voted to levy new fees on students to raise a similar amount of money; the new plan would instead raise the money through charitable giving from alumni, faculty, and philanthropists, rather than ask students to pay more.

In a statement, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia said the administration “[embraces] the spirit of this student proposal,” adding that the university would ensure that the giving-based fundraising would yield the same amount of money annually as the students had proposed through the student fee.

The plan hasn’t been received entirely positively by the students who helped organize the referendum. Shepard Thomas, one of the organizers and a descendent of one of the slaves sold by the university in 1838, said the administration’s plan “isn’t sufficient.”

Thomas told the Times that the emphasis on charitable contributions might cause the fund to fall short of its projected $400,000 goal, despite DeGioia’s assurances. Thomas also criticized the fact that specific descendants would not be receiving direct financial aid to help with scholarships or bills. Georgetown sophomore Miles Aceves-Lewis told The Washington Post that the university's plan also falls short of the student proposal because "since it's the school money, they have all the power," and students will not have a say into how the money is disbursed.

The university’s plan comes after several other academic institutions have embraced forms of reparations as a way of confronting their own role in the slave trade. Earlier this month, the Princeton Theological Seminary said it would expend $27 million on scholarships related to its own slave-owning history. Last month, the Virginia Theological Seminary announced a $1.7 million fund for reparations.

The racial wealth gap is vast — the median white household has 10 times as much wealth as the median black one. As reparations programs begin to take hold at private institutions, the concept has also been discussed in public policy terms by several of the Democratic presidential candidates. In April, multiple candidates including Sens. Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren told audiences at a forum held by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network that they would sign a bill sponsored by Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, which “seeks to establish a commission to also examine the moral and social implications of slavery.”

Notably, the bill would not enact any sort of comprehensive reparations program on the federal level. It is instead a pledge for the government to begin exploring the legacy of slavery and how best to address the resulting inequality.

Vice President Joe Biden, however, has not committed to signing the bill. Earlier this year the Post revealed comments Biden made as a senator in 1975, in which he said, “I don't feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I'll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago."

The candidate — who has steadily been the Democratic frontrunner, even though his lead dwindled over the summer — only reinforced skeptics’ concerns when he gave a rambling, confused answer to a question on the topic at the September Democratic debate. When asked directly about reparations, he instead pivoted to citing portions of his education plan that seek to better pay teachers and boost the resources available to students at low-income schools. He got into trouble when he explained that these resources are necessary because Black parents struggle to raise their own children.

“It’s not that they don’t want to help,” Biden said of these parents. They just “don’t know quite what to do.” His garbled message, which somehow invoked record players and radios, evinced for many a feeling that Biden is fundamentally not serious about closing the racial wealth gap.

Still, Biden has remained far more popular than any other candidate with black voters, including those in key early primary states like South Carolina. And even though his two biggest Democratic rivals — Warren and Sanders — have spoken with more clarity and detail on the issue, all three are white. So far, none of the non-white candidates in the race have managed to pull together anything close to a winning coalition.

For now, reparations at the federal level are a long way off. But with the rise of substantial payments to descendants of slaves at private institutions like Georgetown and the Princeton Theological Seminary, don’t expect the movement’s momentum to subside anytime soon.