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November 20, 2016
In September, Georgetown University announced preferential admissions status would be given to descendants of slaves that were used to benefit the University (specifically 272 slaves that were sold to help keep Georgetown afloat financially in 1838). The preference granted would be akin to the preference given to children and grandchildren of alumni. The preference was announced along with a number of initiatives as a means to atone for the University’s past reliance on slave labor and upon the recommendations of a committee commissioned last year.
Georgetown is far from the first university to acknowledge its connections to slavery, but it is the first to provide preferential admission status – though Georgetown stopped short of providing scholarships to slave descendants, which the committee recommended.
The University of Georgia has struggled with its own history with slavery. A recent class project, detailed in this article in the University of Georgia student newspaper, found that much of the slave history at the University was being overlooked. In fact, many of the figures honored by the University were controversial, white, confederates. These figures minimized the reality of slavery – and the school went so far as to edit a painting on its website to remove the depiction of slaves. In contrast, Emory University was discussing the issue of slavery and Emory’s reliance on rented slave labor in 2010.
This announcement comes on the hells of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher vs. University of Texas, where the Court held that the University of Texas could consider race in admissions. Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas claiming that minority students received preferential treatment in the admissions process. Fisher lost (though, the Supreme Court stopped short of saying that preferential treatment even occurred, let alone was okay). Could larger companies, in the same vein as Georgetown University, find that diversity initiatives would be in their best interest and choose to exercise a system of hiring that gives preference to a certain population? It is not clear if companies would, or if they did, how that would be treated under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which clearly prohibits refusing to hire an individual on the basis of their race, sex, national origin, and religion).
The only real way to see how a plan like Georgetown’s will ripple out to the workforce is to see the court system uphold this plan under scrutiny again and again. If a system of preferential treatment, in whatever form it takes, is upheld— the way employment laws are viewed and interpreted could change.