Reckoning With the Past, Preparing for a Better Future

Remembrance, regret, remorse, repentance, remediation, restitution, reparations and repair.

January 20, 2022

If your institution is like mine, it has skeletons in its closet.

There are, of course, the statues and building names, the living legacies of a discredited and embarrassing past. Then there is the appropriation of historically Black neighborhoods to facilitate campus expansion, and a campus geography and architecture and even department structure organized around sex and gender.

UT Austin’s history includes gay purges during the 1940s and adoption of standardized admissions tests during the 1950s to reduce the number of Black students. Despicable examples of blackface appeared openly on campus into the 1960s, and all-white fraternities engaged in racist and nativist taunts into the 1990s and beyond. Even today, the campus has inadequately addressed instances of sexual assault and continues to feature a school song with racist overtones.

Then there’s the academic and scholarly side, beginning with the promulgation of scientific racism and eugenics during the early 20th century. Academic freedom, too, has faced repeated assaults. Not just McCarthy or 1960s-era instances when faculty members deemed subversive were fired or denied tenure, but investigations of scholars, even in the past decade, over their research findings.

How should institutions remedy past abuses?

This question is, of course, not confined to the academy. We are in the midst of an era of account settling, of truth and reconciliation commissions, memorial sites, public acknowledgments and official apologies, memorial museums, commemorations, reparations, amnesty, and the toppling of monuments to a despicable past.

Transitional justice and restorative justice are the concepts frequently invoked to describe the process of redressing historical injustices. Transitional justice arose as a way for societies making the transition from dictatorial and authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies to engage in societal repair and reconciliation. But its precepts can be applied more broadly.

The pillars of transitional justice are truth seeking, accountability, stakeholder participation, institutional reform and structural transformation, reparations, and empowerment of those who suffered harm.

The goals are twofold: to reckon with past abuses and inequities and to point to a better future.

The outcomes of this reckoning can be symbolic, therapeutic or material. They can be backward facing or future focused. They can be compensatory or interpretive or (for lack of a better word) expiatory.

Addressing symbols isn’t purposeless or pointless. Symbols matter. They’re value laden and help constitute our collective identity. Removing hurtful and hateful symbols and creating fresh symbols can contribute to the establishment of a sense of community.

In recent days, there’s been much criticism of what is casually dismissed as therapeutic antiracism—forms of on-the-job training intended to expose bias, bare privilege and root out various forms of conscious and unconscious favoritism and partiality—as unduly intrusive meddling that verges on indoctrination. But there is certainly a place for some forms of “consciousness raising,” of encouraging a community to be more self-aware and reflective about bias, discrimination and systematic inequalities.

Then there are responses to past wrongs that are more concrete. These responses can be monetary or involve shifts in policies, practices and programming to remediate inequities.

I, for one, think that the most meaningful and consequential responses are generally multidimensional and forward looking. We need to publicly acknowledge past inequities, in a lasting and not a one-and-done way. We must strive to create, as best we can, a shared narrative that as many stakeholders as possible can embrace. And we need to enact institutional reforms to address inequities in the present and the future.

How, then, might colleges and universities apply these principles as they reckon with their own history? Here are several suggestions.

1. Research the past

In her preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1950, the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote, “We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion.”

I concur. We need to acknowledge the past in its totality, and that requires us to engage in a process of research and recovery, letting the chips fall where they may.

Engage in a serious institutional research process to lay bare the past. Remember: truth, not comfort, is the goal.

2. Openly and publicly acknowledge the past

I’m a historian, and it’s not surprising that I believe that the most lasting form of reparations is remembrance. Our institutions need to publicize distasteful facts without fear or favor. We mustn’t leave a disgraceful or contemptible past unacknowledged and unaddressed.

Consider establishing a campus museum, with both a physical and online presence, where the good and the bad are on public display and where faculty, students, staff and alumni can reflect upon their institution's complex legacy.

3. Dismantle structural inequalities

Highly abstract or empty and overgeneralized apologies are nothing more than empty words unless accompanied by decisive actions. We know—or should know—the systemic and structural barriers to equal access and inclusive success.

Some are acts of omission, including recruitment and outreach policies that fail to aggressively pursue talented students from underrepresented backgrounds. Others are acts of commission: credit transfer practices, financial aid policies and course registration procedures that discriminate against transfer students. These need to end.

4. Rethink the curriculum

In general, I don’t think instituting a new course requirement is the answer. That, after all, runs the danger of ghettoizing or segregating topics that should permeate the curriculum.

It may be that a shared intellectual experience does make sense. But I’d also strive to integrate a heightened awareness of issues involving race, ethnicity, equity and bias across all courses. We need to make this sort of equity audit an integral part of the course approval process.

I find it striking that even in today’s highly secularized society, a religious vocabulary shapes thinking about how to reckon with the past. Just think of the words we rely upon: atonement, remorse, repentance, remediation, forgiveness, absolution.

But this religiously inflected vocabulary promises something that cannot be. There’s no finality to the reckoning process, nor should there be. We can’t wipe the slate clean or bury the past or simply start over or forgive and forget.

Even as the European Union insists upon a “right to be forgotten,” the fact is that the past is indelible. It can’t and shouldn’t be edited or erased merely because it’s inconvenient, difficult or embarrassing.

We can’t repair the past. We must ultimately accept it as it was. But we can revise our understanding of the past. And we can certainly learn from the past, and, in light of that history, strive to make better choices.

What we can do is reshape the future.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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