by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier
Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow along with Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Chair of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, recently announced Harvard has ignored the painful truth their university was shaped by slavery.
According to Harvard’s President, slavery was fundamental to New England’s economy during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Slavery was legal in Massachusetts, where Harvard is based, until 1783. By that time, Harvard was around 150 years old. Harvard’s leaders, faculty, and staff enslaved more than 70 people of African and Native American descent. The labor of enslaved people also enriched donors to the university. Those riches helped Harvard expand its infrastructure, grow its faculty and student body, and build its reputation. Prominent Harvard leaders and professors also defended slavery, justified segregation, and promoted racial hierarchy and discrimination.
Harvard’s President insisted that acknowledging this truth is not enough. Harvard has a moral obligation to take action because “slavery’s legacies persist in racial disparities in education, health, employment, income, wealth and the criminal justice system. The question before us now is how best to reckon with these realities and atone for our past.”
To initiate the process, Harvard pledged $100 million to study its ties to slavery.
Harvard’s President concluded, “We are not naïve …We know our efforts may be met with criticism and cynicism. Some will insist those attempts to remedy past wrongs are unnecessary. Others, dedicated to specific forms of redress such as one-time payments in reparations, will argue that any other approach is insufficient. Yet we believe there are many paths forward for institutions implicated in slavery.”
Immediately, the 1619 Project’s Nikole Hannah-Jones remarked that $100 million was way too low. Her reaction was cynical, but it does bring into question how much money will redress the past.
In his book What Money Can’t Buy, political philosopher Michael J. Sandel stressed that when we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities. But not all goods are properly valued in this way. Some good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities.
Therefore, before we attach a price tag to anything, we have to first decide how to value it. Harvard’s President said the university had a moral obligation to atone for the past, but what Harvard actually values is forgiveness.
For decades, slavery has been referred to as America’s “original sin”, but this analogy is misleading. In Christian theology, God’s son pays the price for original sin, and humanity is saved and forgiven, but the actions of God’s son can’t be replicated. That means no human being or human institution can save themselves from sin, nor can they pay to have their sins forgiven. When slavery is made analogous to “original sin”, it misleads individuals to believe a payment is possible.
In the situation at hand, there is no savior or redeemer to pay for the sins of Harvard’s previous generation, leaving the current administration with the misconception they can purchase forgiveness for their predecessors and become born again through the process.
The sole purpose of equating slavery to “original sin” was to place an eternal wrong on America’s institutions. Harvard doesn’t understand the impossibility of forgiveness turns America’s “original sin” into an “unpardonable sin”.
The moment an American institution decides it’s morally obligated to redress its participation in the “unpardonable sin” of slavery, that institution, whether it realizes it or not, has also declared to be held accountable for a never-ending grievance in which the institution will never be pardoned and will always be expected to pay more than it has pledged.
It’s unwise to be frivolous with money, but it’s unforgivable to be unaware of what money can’t buy.