The Reparations Shakedown


Mr. Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News.

IT WAS JESSE JACKSON who, years ago, perfected the art of the racial shakedown. Preying on white guilt and corporate America’s visceral fear of bad publicity, he would make the rounds of some of the nation’s biggest companies, question why there weren’t more black faces in the workrooms, and drop a few unsubtle hints about boycotts or making his" concerns" public.

That was all it ever took. Soon thereafter, the company would sign a pledge committing itself to more"diversity," which it would back up by hiring some of Jackson’s friends to high-paying positions, or making cash payments to his organization. In one of the most unseemly examples, brewer Anheuser-Busch secured Jackson’s friendship by selling his sons a Chicago distributorship for a song (Fellow FrontPage columnist Lowell Ponte exposed the story in these pages back in 1999).

Now, USA Today reports, the champions of national slavery reparations have adopted the same approach. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree and TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson’s"dream team" of lawyers and activists are planning to present corporate America with a bill for the crimes of slave masters and traders over a century ago.

The reparations movement, of course, is nothing new. A suit against the U.S. government failed in 1995, and Rep. John Conyers (D, Mich.) has dutifully sponsored a reparations bill in Congress—with no success—every year since 1989. Previous attempts at redress, however, have failed because the law was never on the plaintiffs’ side, but in the case of corporate shakedowns, the law is irrelevant. It’s public pressure, public perception, and public relations that matter most.

The"dream team," formally known as the Reparations Coordinating Committee, includes O.J. lawyer Johnnie Cochran, Harvard rapper and professor Cornel West, and various other prominent leftist black lawyers and academics. The group has identified six corporations as possible targets for what would be, no doubt, only the first round of its lawsuits. The potential defendants consist of three insurance companies (Aetna, New York Life, and AIG) and three financial corporations (J.P. Morgan, Chase Manhattan, and FleetBoston).

What these six companies have in common is that all once participated in slavery—or, more often than not, companies that they purchased some time in the last century participated in slavery, either by underwriting or insuring the slave trade or using slave labor. The logic of the RCC’s planned lawsuits is that the corporations’ net worth was enhanced through their cooperation in an undeniably wicked institution. Consequently, some portion of their assets should be transferred to the descendants of slaves, i.e., black Americans, however defined.

This is a variation of the standard argument for taxpayer-funded reparations, which says that because America benefited from uncompensated slave labor, it should transfer trillions of dollars from today’s general population to the presumed descendants of slavery—that is, anyone deemed sufficiently black.

David Horowitz has forcefully laid out the flaws in such appeals, first in his case against reparations and then in his recent book, Uncivil Wars. The problems are both practical and moral. Not all white Americans, most of whom descend from immigrants who arrived after 1865, bear any connection, ancestrally or otherwise, to the slave trade. Likewise, not all blacks today descend from former slaves.

It’s impossible to put a price tag on the horrors of slavery, let alone to assess whose great-great-grandparents suffered most, who inflicted the most suffering, and who sacrificed their very lives to end the practice altogether. Because no slaves are still alive, the case that African Americans today deserve compensation for their ancestors’ torment necessarily rests on the premise that the"vestiges of slavery" still hold black Americans back—a claim that the tremendous wealth and success of Cochran, Ogletree, Robinson, and West impressively belies.

Ultimately, it’s untenable—and wrong—to punish entire races for the actions of individuals, especially individuals who are long dead.

Even though corporations are, by law, individual entities, the reparations case against them has many of the same defects. There’s no way to quantify how much a company benefited from its involvement in slavery as long as 200 years ago, or to identify the victims. Legally, the statute of limitations has long since expired.

Neither Aetna, J.P. Morgan, or any of the other proposed targets, qualifies as a"white corporation." They have black employees, shareholders, executives, and pensioners who would all share the burden of the financial devastation that could come from a racially loaded lawsuit. Customers of all races would also be affected, either through higher prices, diminished services, or fewer choices in the marketplace.

And who would benefit? While the RCC insists that it would offer its services pro bono, its members would be in the enviable position of deciding where tens of millions of dollars in settlement money would be distributed. Well-connected left-wing advocacy groups, charities, and universities would be the recipients of massive transfers of wealth. The average African American, the nominal beneficiary of such a case, would get nothing.

Once again, the law isn’t on the reparations-seekers’ side, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Few corporations want to be associated with slavery, much less the negative publicity that Oglretree, Cochran, et al. could quickly generate. For most, buying their way out of the shakedown will seem a less costly alternative than going to court.

But the cash settlements, as USA Today observes, are only the first part of the RCC’s strategy. The"dream team" predicts that the afflicted companies will seek to share their misery—and lobby Washington for a federal reparations program. At that point, the precedent for collective, ancestral (and remunerative) guilt will have already been set.

It’s taking the shakedown to a whole new level.

Jesse Jackson must be proud.

This article first appeared in on February 27, 2002 and is reprinted with permission.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Gus Moner - 9/14/2002

I generally agree with the writer regarding the difficulties of tracing directly the perpetrators as well as the victims of the slave trade and labour camps known as plantations. I remain doubtful direct reparations are the proper way to ameliorate the sequels of this dastardly crime against humanity.

Nevertheless, plenty of precedent in international law, set in large part by US government lawyers, exists for paying the heirs of slave labour, as has been done for descendants of Nazi slave labour camps.

And plenty of precedent exists for nations to accept collective guilt for their ancestors' misdeeds. Look at Australia, New Zealand Switzerland and Canada as but four examples of nations that have owned up to other generation's errors and paid compensation to victims and their heirs. It’s not collective guilt, but rather collective responsibility.

So I don't buy the vitriolic and poorly documented, when not downright fabricated, discourse of the anti-reparations lobby. Due to the distance between the deed and the conscience for reparations payments, no victims or direct descendants may exist, or few. The real problem is not how to effect direct payment, however.

The real problem is how to compensate for the disadvantages of hundreds of years of wasted generations, whose sequels are felt in the moral, economic and social development of the descendants. From my perspective, this is not a matter for reparations.

Rather, some sort of comprehensive general programme for better integration into the social, health care and economic life of the white nation, not unlike that undertaken for Laotian and Vietnamese refugees in the mid-seventies and later.

The US could organise to ensure health care, specialised education programmes and job training as well. In addition, because one of the social ills is the breakdown of their families, targeted, specific help to families to break the cycle of poverty. The aid may include housing, clothing and other allowances. A programme of this magnitude would necessarily cover a couple of generations, some 25 years or so, to bear fruit and do its work. It would necessarily have to have an expiry date.

This may be hard for capitalists, white supremacists, right wing, racist or fundamentalist religious people to accept. Notwithstanding, the nation would write a glorious page in its history if it treated its black victims as it has refugee victims of its failed foreign adventures. And there would be no bullets, no bombs or missiles, no collateral damage to play down.

It would be a clean war on ignorance, crime, poverty and ingrained, hereditary injustice. The nation would benefit long-term from the reduced crime and increased productivity from millions of its citizens. And it will have done the right thing.