Reckoning with Institutional Histories of Racism

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The last couple of years have seen a number of colleges and universities reckon with their institutional histories of racism. Inspired in part by a comprehensive history of St. Olaf institutional racism researched and written by St. Olaf students, we wanted to compile here a links round up that recognizes the complicated and challenging work of institutional reckoning. One central theme we see is that are students definitely driving these conversations with their demands that their institutions live up to their current mission statements and educational ideals. We also note that figuring out what to do in the wake of seeing the depth and persistence of institutional racism is no easy task.

Georgetown University, notably, has made commitments to offer preferential admission to descendants of the slaves sold to benefit Georgetown, as well as “offer a formal apology, create an institute for the study of slavery and erect a public memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited the institution…In addition, two campus buildings will be renamed — one for an enslaved African-American man and the other for an African-American educator who belonged to a Catholic religious order.”

At Rutgers University, distinguished from other schools that have done this kind of work in that it is a public university, student organizing around improving the racial campus climate eventually led to a commision of a committee to examine and publish a report on the history of both the slave-owning founders of the university and the displacement of Indigenous committees on the land that was given to the university.

Christopher P. Lehman, a professor of Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota, presented his findings on Governor William Aiken Jr.’s contribution to the University of Minnesota in the mid-1800s, which show that Aiken’s money came from the slave trade. At the time of his presentation in the fall of 2016, the Social Concerns Committee of the U. of MN questioned the findings; a follow-up letter from Professor Lehman argues that U. of MN should take these issues seriously. He suggests that the committee reconsider their decision not to pursue the question and, in particular, asks, “what will the University do to let its students, faculty and staff know this—students especially? As a professor, I teach my students to pursue the truth and present it with thoughtful and careful analysis, even if that truth is unpleasant and painful to read and is contrary to traditional narratives. The fact that the University is not discussing this matter further only highlights how much the University community at large needs to know what the University refuses to discuss.”

One of the considerations that makes it complicated to figure out what to do with the historical unearthing of violence that led to the creation of universities is the form of reparation that should be made. We appreciated the point made by R.L. Stephens on this issue: Harvard has a $37 billion endowment…[and yet] dining workers at the school were locked in a protracted battle for a living wage. Many of these workers are themselves descendants of slaves. The university was unmoved by their struggle. The dining workers spent the better part of a month on strike, before finally forcing Harvard to concede to their demands. The university was quicker to take the less expensive measure of admitting that the school was complicit in 17th century slavery than it was to pay its workers fairly today.”

An interview with MIT history professor Craig Steven Wilder, author of Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, which examines the relationship between the slave economy and history of higher education in the United States serves as a sign of the increased attention to and need for historical reckonings, which makes us wonder:

How are your institutions dealing with their histories of racism, collusion with the slave trade, and/or displacement of Indigenous communities?

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