In two recent blog posts, I discussed the origins, findings, and repercussions of a first wave of college and university efforts to surface and address institutional entanglement with American slavery. More recently, following the national protests sparked by the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, many colleges and universities have responded to student demands calling for reform by committing to anti-racist actions to amend past injuries of institutional racism. In this post, I discuss current developments and compare them with practices that emerged from the first wave of historical inquiry projects.

Following national protests on systemic racism, many institutions have continued to commit to a deeper understanding of their entanglement with slavery

For a number of institutions, including those that had previously supported historical inquiries into slavery, the response to the intensified national attention on systemic racism was to further investigate their historical ties to slavery. For example, Columbia University announced that it would build on its Columbia and Slavery project by initiating a process to consider symbols that have associations with slavery and racial hierarchies on campus. Brown University announced that its Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice would expand its work through additional funding provided by the University to support research and programming that addresses anti-blackness and racism. Wake Forest University is building on its Slavery, Race, and Memory project by creating a new center focused on African American studies. As noted by the new director, “The Center arises from a simultaneous reckoning [with] the University’s history and a commitment to create a way for Wake Forest and the Winston-Salem community to engage in critical dialogue.”

Many other institutions issued statements denouncing systemic racism and committed to making progress on racial justice issues. Furman University’s president announced that, even though the university had undertaken a close examination of slavery through its Task Force on Slavery and Justice and had committed to expanding resources to Black students and faculty, more needed to be done: “We are far from perfect at Furman, and the continued incidents of racism remind us that we need to do so much more. We must confront this moment with empathy and a spirit of caring, but also with conviction and a call to action.”

Other institutions have continued addressing past injuries by renaming buildings with historical ties to slavery and segregation. For example, based on recommendations from the Dickinson & Slavery initiative, the Board of Trustees approved renaming university buildings to honor Henry Spradley and Robert Young, two formerly enslaved men who helped integrate the college. The College of William & Mary will fundraise to build a memorial acknowledging the history of slavery at the institution. Rutgers University, building on its Scarlet and Black project, will create four additional historical markers on campus that note the history of the college’s early benefactors and their exploitation of enslaved people.

However, very few institutions have moved beyond symbolic gestures of accountability

As with the earlier round of inquiries into historical ties to slavery, even though many institutions have committed to studying and addressing systemic racism, there are few examples of concrete action to provide reparations and seek justice. An analysis conducted by the consulting firm EAB of 130 statements on racial justice and anti-racism issued by colleges and universities in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder showed that most commitments were short-term and symbolic (i.e. establishing anti-racism taskforces, hosting town halls, etc.). Most institutions in the analysis did not provide concrete plans and timelines on how these initiatives would be developed further.

Also, institutions with large endowments were more likely to lay out robust commitments compared to smaller and less wealthy institutions. For example, Princeton University is establishing initiatives to diversify Princeton’s faculty and graduate studies while also committing to expanding efforts focused on procuring diverse vendors and business partners. Duke University also outlined more than thirty initiatives in its statement, including expanding diversity hiring, providing additional funding for research on slavery, and offering an antiracist course. Recently, Brown University announced that $20 million will be earmarked to fund research on race and inequality and will be used to support faculty positions, research initiatives focused on race equity, and student financial aid. The University of Pennsylvania is allocating $2 million to encourage students, faculty, and staff to pitch individual or team projects that focus on eliminating systemic racism, increasing educational equity, and reducing disparities in healthcare.

A disconnect between past and present

As I’ve noted previously, the historical focus of inquiries examining the institutional connections with slavery may have narrowed the scope of reconciliation and redress to scholarly and symbolic resolutions if the conception of these projects was that the “problem is in the past.” Something like the inverse may have happened with the more recent responses to systemic racism: institutions acknowledged the current problem, but did not connect it with their own historical role in shaping the current system, including through their support for and entanglement in American slavery, once again narrowing the scope of their responsibility to right the wrong. As the EAB analysis of presidential statements on racial justice and anti-racism noted, only 18 percent of statements acknowledged their institution’s history in racial oppression.

However, as more institutions commit to studying their entanglement with American slavery (more than 14 institutions have joined the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium since Summer 2020) and as more anti-racist initiatives take hold, it will be important to track whether conceptions of the past and the present converge.

In the next and final blog post in this series, I will discuss recommendations for how colleges and universities can make substantive changes to address both current institutional racism and their historical connection with slavery.