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Georgetown University students back fee to fund slavery reparations

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Georgetown University undergraduates have voted by a large margin in favor of a referendum seeking the establishment of a fund to benefit the descendants of enslaved people sold to pay off the school’s debts.

The $27.20-per-semester fee would create one of the first reparations funds at a major U.S. institution.

The Georgetown University Student Association Elections Commission said 2,541 students voted for the “Reconciliation Contribution.” That’s just over 66 percent of voters. The fee was opposed by 1,304. Turnout was 57.9 percent. Voting was online and ended at 11:59 p.m. on Thursday.

The student-led proposal aims to atone for the Jesuit-organized sale of 272 slaves in 1838. Fees would go toward projects in underprivileged communities where some 4,000 descendants live, including Maringouin, Louisiana.

In an early Friday statement, university administrator Todd Olson didn’t commit to the fund’s establishment but said Thursday’s non-binding vote provided “valuable insight into student perspectives.”

Before the vote, Georgetown spokesperson Matt Hill said that no matter what the outcome, the school would “remain committed to engaging with students, Descendants, and the broader Georgetown community and addressing its historical relationship to slavery.”

Leading up to the vote, the editorial board of the Georgetown Voice, a student magazine, urged undergrads to approve the proposal, arguing that it would “move past memorialization to concretely to address how our school’s past affects people in the present.” The board recognized that some students might vote “no” out of a belief that the institution, not students, should fund reparations, and the board urged those students to push the administration to take action.

An editorial from two freshmen in the student newspaper, The Hoya, expressed an opposing view, saying the new fee would support “unjust imposition of a moral judgement on the entire student body.”

Critics of the proposal have pointed out its lack of specifics about how it would work, and suggested any reparations fee for students be optional.

Georgetown has apologized for its role in slavery and convened a working group to propose ways to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for that history. But it has stopped short of offering financial restitution.

The student vote comes as the issue of national reparations has resurfaced among 2020 Democratic candidates. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill to research the possibility of reparations, and some other candidates — including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris — have voiced support for reparations in principle. 

There have been calls in Congress for decades to start a dialogue about reparations, but the idea has found little momentum.

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