What the Heck Does “a Historical Connection to Slavery” Mean?

by James A. Bacon

Project Gabriel, an initiative of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, discussed ideas this summer on how to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling restricting the role of race in college admissions, Do No Harm has found through a public records request.

“VCU and other medical schools are trying their utmost to circumvent the Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action,” Do No Harm Chairman Stanley Goldfarb told The College Fix. Do No Harm, a national organization headquartered in Henrico County, combats identity politics in medicine.

Project Gabriel scholarships, writes the College Fix, “would be available for ‘those with a historic connection to slavery.’ A list of challenges included questions such as ‘How do you determine someone’s historic connection to slavery?’ and ‘Restriction of affirmative action in college admission – how does this affect race-based scholarships?'”

“Work around the ruling on affirmative action and find ways we can still help give scholarships to those students in need,” say Project Gabriel notes.

The email trove revealed numerous other ways in which the medical school proposed implementing its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion goals, including a requirement of job applicants to submit diversity statements. The article did not say which, if any, proposals had been implemented.

I have some questions about the proposed criteria of granting scholarships to “those with a historic connection to slavery.”

Would that include descendants of slaveholders? Slaveholders clearly had a “connection” to slavery?

How old can that connection to slavery go? Two hundred years? Two thousand? Would this criterion extend to someone who can trace ancestry back to a Roman-era slave? If not, what is the justification for a certain chronological cut-off?

Are we talking about descendants of U.S. slaves only? How about descendants of West Indian slaves? For that matter, slavery was endemic in African societies, too. How about recent immigrants from Africa who can trace their ancestry to African slaves?

What about descendants of indigenous peoples who were enslaved? The book, “The Other Slavery,” estimates that roughly two million indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere were enslaved, mainly by people of European ancestry but also by other indigenous peoples. Does it count if the Indians were enslaved by other Indians?

How does one define “slavery” anyway? There was enormous variation in systems of servitude in times past. Were Russian serfs “slaves?” Was indentured servitude a form of slavery? Is India’s caste system a form of slavery? Were Indians who provided forced labor under the Spanish encomienda system slaves? If not, what were the distinguishing characteristics that would lead Project Gabriel to classify one system of servitude as “slavery” and another system not — a loss of rights, inherited status, racial criteria? — and why are those characteristics the defining features of who would be awarded a VBU scholarship?

History is complicated. VCU is walking into a minefield.

Here’s a crazy idea: How about giving scholarships to people in need regardless of their race?