Slavery and Justice: Concluding Thoughts

When she appointed  the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, President Simmons noted that we would confront questions “about which men and women of good will may ultimately disagree,” including those posed by the question of reparations for slavery. She did not ask the Steering Committee to try to resolve the debate, and she made clear that the Committee would not determine whether or how Brown might pay monetary reparations. Our task, rather, was to provide “factual information and critical perspectives” to enable our students and the nation to discuss the historical, legal, political, and moral dimensions of the controversy in reasoned and intellectually rigorous ways. Brown’s own history, the president observed, gave the University a special opportunity and obligation to provide intellectual leadership and foster civil discourse on this important national issue.

In the preceding pages, we have tried to fulfill this charge. Yet after years of reading and organizing public programs, we have drawn certain conclusions, which we offer as a final stimulus for reflection and debate.

American slavery and the transatlantic trade that fed it were crimes against humanity. Indeed, they were the very definition of such crimes — offenses that, in their denial of the shared humanity of certain categories of people, diminished the humanity of all people, whether victims, perpetrators, or bystanders. The familiar extenuations — that slavery and slave trading were once legal; that they ended a long time ago; that direct victims and perpetrators are long since dead; that many, even most, Americans are descendants of immigrants who came to the United States after 1865 — are all true, but they neither expunge the crimes nor erase their enduring legacies.

In labeling slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity, we are not merely indulging hindsight or projecting our present values back onto the past. While the international legal regime for responding to crimes against humanity was codified only in the twentieth century, the concepts that undergird it, the basic intuitions about the shared nature and irreducible moral worth of all human beings, come to us directly from the eighteenth century. Indeed, they emerged in large measure out of the struggles over slavery and the slave trade recounted here. As we have seen, Brown was an important terrain in these struggles. In the late eighteenth century, the College’s governing Corporation and its namesake family were rent by the campaign to end the transatlantic slave trade, with some members bringing prosecutions against other members for illegal slave trading. The battle was rejoined a generation later, with students and faculty debating the merits of abolition even as the burgeoning Rhode Island textile industry tied the fortunes of the University and the state more closely to southern slavery. Attending to this history not only challenges prevailing understandings of the “free North” and “slave South,” but also casts the work of the Steering Committee in a different light. In exploring Brown’s historical relationship to slavery and the slave trade, and in debating our own responsibilities in light of it, we are participating in a conversation that began on this campus more than two centuries ago.

Like other great historical crimes, slavery had profound consequences. The most fundamental was racism — the enduring stigma borne by darker-skinned people. But the institution left other legacies as well, including vast gulfs of wealth and poverty, privilege and deprivation. Americans who lived through the process of emancipation, first in northern states like Rhode Island and later in the South, recognized at least some of slavery’s consequences, and they proposed a variety of programs to redress them, from land redistribution to publicly funded education. In the end, however, virtually nothing was done, in either the North or the South, to compensate the formerly enslaved for their years of unpaid toil or to welcome them into the ranks of free people. On the contrary, the post-emancipation years, in the North and the South, saw a hardening of racist attitudes, accompanied by the erection of new barriers to ensure African Americans’ continued subjugation.

The system of racial discrimination that prevailed after slavery was most blatant in the American South, where 245 years of slavery were succeeded by nearly a century of state-sanctioned segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence. But the system was national in scope and underwritten by a host of public and private institutions, from federal agencies like the Social Security Administration and the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which denied Black Americans access to programs and assets available to whites, to elite universities like Brown, which between the 1870s and 1950s enrolled fewer than one African American student per year. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the centuries of formal racial discrimination finally came to an end, and African Americans assumed, in law if not always in practice, their full rights and privileges as American citizens. In the years since, the United States has seen evidence of substantial progress, including the emergence of a sizable Black middle class and a dramatic increase in the number of African Americans studying in colleges and universities. Yet the nation also continues to be marked by profound racial disparities in most measures of human welfare, including education, employment, wealth, rates of incarceration, access to housing and health care, infant mortality, and life expectancy.

But material inequalities are only part of the legacy that slavery and the subsequent regime of Jim Crow bequeathed to the nation. One of the things that Steering Committee members learned in our exploration of other cases of historical injustice around the world is that crimes against humanity weigh on societies in many different ways. In the worst circumstances, they leave legacies of rage and contempt that, left untended, virtually ensure the eruption of new atrocities in the future. In less dramatic cases, they leave a residue of ill will, fostering feelings of resentment, distrust, and defensiveness that can poison politics and impair a society’s ability to face the challenges of the present and future with civility and common purpose. Surveying the state of racial politics in America today, the rancor and raw emotions that discussions of racial issues seem instantly to arouse, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the United States is such a society.

The challenge, of course, is not only to understand the sources of our current predicament but also to devise ways to make the situation better. This is the task of retrospective justice. As we have seen, the last sixty years — and the last twenty years, in particular — have witnessed the emergence of an international consensus on the importance of confronting traumatic histories, as well as the creation of a variety of modalities and mechanisms for doing so. These approaches include not only the payment of monetary reparations (the focus of the current slavery reparations debate in the United States), but also international tribunals, formal apologies, truth commissions, the creation of public memorials and days of remembrance, educational initiatives, and a wide variety of other non-monetary reparations programs. In the preceding pages, we have tried to illuminate the possibilities and potential pitfalls of these different approaches, as well as some of the specific circumstances in which they have been or might be used. Clearly there is no magical formula for righting historical wrongs. Retrospective justice is a messy and imperfect business, and societies and institutions that undertake it should do so with humility and a clear-eyed recognition of the inadequacy of any reparative program to restore what was taken away. Yet looking at the experience of other societies that have confronted (or failed to confront) legacies of historical injustice — at the contrasting experiences of West Germany, East Germany, and Japan following World War II; at the operation of truth commissions in South Africa and elsewhere; at the bitter controversies spawned by the Turkish government’s denial of the Armenian genocide or by the Australian government’s refusal to apologize to Aboriginal children abducted from their families as part of a state-sponsored forced assimilation policy — there seems good reason to believe that communities that face their histories squarely emerge stronger than those that choose the path of denial and evasion.

In the course of its research, the Steering Committee was struck not only by the sheer variety of reparative justice initiatives around the world but also by the ambivalent response of many Americans to these efforts. On one hand, Americans have played a leading role in creating the international humanitarian regime. Judges and prosecutors from the United States laid the foundations of international humanitarian law at Nuremberg, and it was American military officials who drafted the first German restitution and reparations policies for victims of Nazi atrocities. U.S. courts and legislatures have become the premier venues for reparations claims of various sorts, and many American political leaders have been outspoken in demanding that leaders of other nations (particularly the current government of Japan) acknowledge and make amends for the misdeeds of their predecessors. On the other hand, many Americans remain distinctly uneasy about broaching aspects of their own history, particularly in regard to slavery. While recent years have seen a proliferation of national and institutional apologies for various offenses, a proposed apology for slavery — a one-sentence Congressional resolution introduced in 1997 apologizing to “African Americans whose ancestors suffered as slaves under the Constitution and the laws of the United States until 1865” — died before it could even come up for discussion on the floor of the House of Representatives. It is difficult to say precisely where this reticence about slavery comes from, but it seems to us to be a matter worthy of further reflection.

All of which leads to one final conclusion. If this nation is ever to have a serious dialogue about slavery, Jim Crow, and the bitter legacies they have bequeathed to us, then universities must provide the leadership. For all their manifold flaws and failings, universities possess unique concentrations of knowledge and skills. They are grounded in values of truth seeking and the unfettered exchange of ideas. They are at least relatively insulated from political pressure. Perhaps most important, they are institutions that value historical continuity, that recognize and cherish the bonds that link the present to the past and the future. The fact that so many of our nation’s elite institutions have histories that are entangled with the history of slavery only enhances the opportunity and the obligation.