Harvard Repatriations and the Responsibility of Guilt

Harvard University is the latest of America’s elite colleges to establish a fund to redress the burden of guilt it says it bears for the legacy of slavery. In doing so, it joins a consortium of 50 other colleges that pledged to address the stain of slavery and the role it played in the lives of their institutions. These colleges clearly believe that because some very bad things happened in the past—such as slavery—we remain somehow responsible for the bad actions of our forebears.

The past we have is the past we’ve got, and we have a duty to understand why things happened as they did. However, while we can learn from the past, we can never go back and undo the past.

Studying history is an important way of coming to terms with the past and understanding why events occurred as and when they did. But to rage against what happened in the past and insist that past wrongs must be redressed today is a mistake.

The Harvard fund was established following recommendations of a new report, Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, which says not only did slavery comprise a vital part of the New England economy in the 17th and 18th centuries; it was also a practice from which Harvard University, founded in 1636, benefited and accrued substantial wealth until slavery was ended in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1783. It was another 100 years before slavery was abolished in the United States overall.

The report also states the legacy of slavery persisted, both at the university and in American society, “well into the 20th century.” It urges the university to support descendants of enslaved people, to memorialise them through research and teaching, and thereby “to make amends for the wrongs” of slavery.

Certainly, the moral stain of slavery is so deep that it is almost indelible. After all, nothing can ever undo the wickedness and harm perpetrated for profit against those who were enslaved and denied fundamental rights and protections. And questions of racism and racial reconciliation continue to be very contentious issues in the United States. Payment of reparations was one of the demands made by Black Lives Matter protesters and also featured as one of the policy themes in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries.

Not surprisingly, opinion in the U.S. divides sharply over whether or not it is appropriate to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves. According to a 2020 poll for The Washington Post, 63 percent of Americans opposed paying reparations to the descendants of slaves. Support for reparations was much higher amongst Black Americans (82 percent) than it was among White Americans (25 percent).

But on what basis should reparations be paid in the first place?

Reparations commonly take the form of payments to make amends for injury or harm. Advocates for reparations argue that descendants of slaves continue to endure severe social and economic disadvantages for which they are entitled to be compensated.

However, opponents of reparations say that the real victims—the slaves, themselves—are no longer living and that no one alive today can be held responsible for what happened. They say it is impossible to assess modern monetary consequences of long-ago iniquities and systems.

There is no question that Harvard University, as an institution some centuries ago, benefited in various ways from slavery when it was legal in Massachusetts. But those who lead the college today obviously had no personal involvement in the practice. Since institutions, as entities, are not moral actors themselves, moral responsibility can be attributed only to individuals.

However, by imposing on today’s generation the burden of paying compensation for wrongs committed by past generations, we separate the idea of guilt from the specific actions of the wrongdoer.

Instead, guilt becomes heritable from one generation to another and thereby impossible to discharge. The past must be reckoned with, and this also recognises that the principles we affirm today were not equally admired by our ancestors. But it also means renewing a commitment to address today’s causes of social and economic injustice rather than continuing to condemn the wrongs of past ages.

Slavery does persist in parts of the world as an illegal and criminal practice. The United Nations estimates there are some 40 million people held in enslavement today—many more times the number of those transported from Africa when the slave trade prevailed.

However, as an economic and social institution, slavery is neither practised nor endorsed by any modern liberal society. It is inconceivable that any descendant of those responsible for slavery in the past would endorse the actions of their slave-owning or slave-trading ancestors, and so it makes no sense to lay the burden of guilt and the burden of compensation on the innocent shoulders of those descendants.

What was done in the past is done.

Learning lessons from the past does not mean passing from one generation to the next an ineradicable burden of guilt which can only lead to frustration and resentment.

Rather, those lessons must compel us to ensure that wrongs committed by our forebears are not repeated in the societies in which we live today. When we fail to act today to eradicate the continuing practices from the past we have condemned, not only should we expect to be held responsible; we are responsible and should expect to bear an appropriate burden of guilt.