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Political Responsibility and Divestment

Original Illustration by Ayca Tuzer

Recently, I took a morning walk by the Quiet Green, where a great ball and chain lie as a physical representation of Brown University’s complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. I still vividly remember my first-year discussion of the Slavery and Justice Report. For me, it was particularly illuminating. As a lifelong Northerner, I was as guilty as anyone in assuming that the culpability for slavery fell squarely on the Southern states. “The North’s economy was industrial, and the South’s economy was agricultural,” according to my high school history teachers. The historical reality is that the Northern economy was also entrenched in slavery—maybe not by growing cotton, but by financing slave voyages. My Yankee ancestors, like Brown University, were certainly complicit in this great structural injustice. As the Slavery and Justice Report explains:

Determining what percentage of the money that founded Brown is traceable to slavery is impossible… slavery was not a distinct enterprise but rather an institution that permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island, the Americas, and indeed the Atlantic world. 

When an entire economic system creates injustice, who is responsible for amending it? 

As I am writing this article from the reclaimed Leung Family Gallery on February 7, 19 of my classmates are on a hunger strike to pressure the Brown administration to divest from the Israeli occupation of Gaza. While I am not directly comparing the occupation of Gaza to the transatlantic slave trade—a comparison that would be insensitive and counterproductive—there exists a distinct historical parallel between Brown’s financial ties to each of these crimes. As with the slave trade, we must understand that the occupation of Gaza is a systemic injustice that Brown bears a shared responsibility to ameliorate rather than an unfortunate externality outside of our control. 

In a 2019 Brown Daily Herald op-ed, members of the University’s Investment Office argued against the possibility of divestment from Israel. They explained that Brown invests most of its money in external portfolios shared by many other clients, that “neither Brown nor the other investors have the ability to dictate specific requirements about the contents of the portfolios based on our own preferences or interests,” and that many peer institutions invest their money similarly. 

This does not render divestment impossible. As student activists have pointed out, given that the University has effectively divested from other culpable sectors in the past (for example, the tobacco industry), it can certainly divest from the Israeli occupation if it so chooses. This could be accomplished, just as in previous divestments, by adjusting the University’s “investment philosophy statement”—a set of expectations for external fund managers.

In her essay “Political Responsibility and Structural Injustice,” contemporary political theorist Iris Marion Young describes a framework for deciding responsibility for action in the face of broad injustices like these. Political responsibility is distinct from the legal conception of liability, where one actor is ruled at fault and all others are acquitted. Rather, political responsibility for structural injustice falls on everyone who participates in producing and perpetuating the systems in question, regardless of knowledge or intent: “We who are part of these processes should be held responsible for the structural injustice, as members of the collective that produces it, even though we cannot trace the outcome we regret to our own particular actions in a direct causal chain.” 

In this case, who counts as “members of the collective?” To varying extents, all of us. The American Friends Service Committee keeps a list of companies “involved in specific human rights violations as part of the Israeli occupation,” including not only arms manufacturers like Textron and Raytheon but also electronics companies like Motorola and General Electric. It is likely that most of us have financially supported companies on the list, whether by buying their products or by investing in them through our banks’ mutual funds. 

This conception of political responsibility holds useful insights for us as members of the Brown community. The administration asserted that the role of the University is not to “take sides” or use the endowment to make political statements, but divestment from war-profiteering companies is not about taking sides or making statements: It is about fulfilling a political responsibility. The injustice’s complexity does not exempt us from responsibility.

Viewing the injustice in Palestine as structural and wrought by many actors reveals that the standard of proof set for the divestment proposal is unreasonable. The administration said that it could not implement the proposal as written because it failed to “articulate how financial divestment from the companies, however defined, would address social harm.” Divestment would certainly address social harm, but it would be nearly impossible to measure. 

Far from sinking our money directly into bulldozers that tear down homes in Gaza, Brown’s culpability in funding war is indirect, unquantifiable, and shared with many other peer institutions. Because Brown’s investment portfolio is confidential, it would be impossible to quantify concrete deltas without being accused of being overly vague or uncertain. In fact, it is tantamount to asking a historian to calculate what exact percentage of Brown’s funding came from the slave trade. In the language of the Slavery and Justice Report, war profiteering is not a distinct enterprise but rather an institution that permeates political and economic life in the United States.

Collective responsibility demands collective action. For the activists: We must hold the University accountable for its duties rather than pointing fingers at its past wrongs. Young makes it clear that political responsibility entails little blame or shame. It aims “less to reckon debts than to bring about results, and thus depends on the actions of everyone who is in a position to contribute to the results.” From this perspective, those who are victims of a systemic injustice also bear special political responsibility for amending it because their voices are integral to a fair solution. Also bearing special responsibility are actors in positions of power over structural processes (the Brown University administration) and those in positions of privilege to influence them (us, the students). Rather than chanting “Brown has blood on its hands” or “shame,” let our public rhetoric emphasize our University’s role and responsibility to divest, demonstrate how it would be possible, and call on other universities to follow us. As with the Slavery and Justice Report, the conversation should center on reparations, not recriminations—it should be forward-facing rather than backward-looking.

Brown’s Slavery and Justice Report opened the floodgates for other institutions to study their historic ties to the slave trade. Unfortunately, the discourse and action at Brown pertaining to the Israeli occupation of Gaza have remained insular despite the structural nature of the issue in question. Coordination with peer universities would serve the interests of both the advocates and the University: A united intercollegiate activist movement gets more attention, is more effective, and is seen as more legitimate. For the Corporation, a joint divestment undertaken with other universities spreads thin any consequences of political backlash by the news media or financial loss from pro-Israel donors. 

The Slavery and Justice Report left a noble legacy that Brown must now live up to. We must unflinchingly examine our financial connections to a terrible systemic injustice and refuse to allow its layers of complexity to default us to inaction. We must fight the “inevitable tendencies to deny, extenuate, and forget.” Only then can healing begin.