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Reparations, once silly, are now taken seriously

April 9, 2002

Polls show that 75 percent of Americans, and 90 percent of whites, are opposed to paying reparations to blacks for the enslavement of their ancestors. This means that the reparations fight will not take place in the political arena, where victory is probably impossible. Instead it will be a legal and public relations campaign to force corporate America to pay.This is an obvious strategy. Nobody loves corporations, and that’s where the money is. So the class-action lawsuits for reparations, filed in late March against Aetna, CSX and FleetBoston, are just the first surge of litigation against companies historically linked in some way to the slave trade. The lawyers involved say as many as a thousand large corporations will eventually be sued. Another team of lawyers, including Johnnie Cochran and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, plans more suits this summer.Will this litigation get anywhere in the courts? Probably not. Yes, our modern liberated judges are capable of anything, and juries hand out huge awards for little or no reason. Most experts, however, think the legal case for reparations is weak and fraught with too many obstacles, including a long-expired statute of limitations. But the strategy is to force settlements, not necessarily to win outright in court. Randall Robinson, author of the pro-reparations book “The Debt,” says: “Once the record is fleshed out and made fully available to the American people, I think companies will feel some obligation” to settle.

This sense of obligation will be enhanced by the possibility of boycotts and terrible publicity during prolonged litigation. The nice way to put this strategy is to say that corporations are being pushed to pay as a reflection of national guilt and an emerging moral consensus. Or you could just say that this is a racial shakedown.

The history of this technique is currently on display in the new book “Shakedown,” Kenneth Timmerman’s account of the career of Jesse Jackson. Only rarely did a corporation fight back when exposed to the Jackson treatment. (Nike fought and won.) In general, corporations are so fearful of the racist label that they prefer to backpedal and pay what amounts to protection money. Ward Connerly and Edward Blum, leaders of the fight against set-asides and racial preferences, recently wrote: “Texaco, Denny’s, Coca-Cola and others have settled specious bias claims rather than have Mr. (Al) Sharpton, Mr. Jackson and members of the congressional black caucus call for a nationwide boycott of their companies.”

Many conservatives have the sense that corporate America has trapped itself by capitulating so often and so easily, not just in payouts and buy-offs, but in indoctrinating employees (“diversity training”) and installing large and unproductive diversity bureaucracies inside their own companies. Perhaps it is too late for a spinal transplant. But the cost of caving in this time would be staggering, possibly in the billions.

So far the activists have not made enormous headway, but reparation is no longer considered the absolutely wacky issue that it was four or five years ago. Sectors of the media are now treating it as a legitimate issue, particularly media companies that have been identified as having some financial tie to slavery in the old days (Gannett, Knight-Ridder and The Hartford Courant, for example).

The nudge of guilt is being applied to another constituency the reparations people will need: the universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown and the University of Virginia have all been identified as having embarrassing connections to slavery. All will likely be sued. This raises the specter of idealistic students annually denouncing their own universities as racist, and demanding pro-reparations action by adminstrators, the keepers of university stock portfolios and all those professors on corporate boards. David Horowitz’s book “Uncivil Wars” is a revelation about how far some elite campuses were willing to go just to suppress a newspaper ad opposing reparations.

So it’s possible that the reparations issue could take off. We should all hope it doesn’t. This campaign is the work of an aging and backward-looking black leadership that can’t seem to extricate itself from victim politics. The not-so-subtle message is that black Americans are so mangled by the legacy of slavery that they must be paid off massively to compensate for their incapacity. It undermines the positive message that blacks can compete with anyone in any field and rise on their own, without crutches or patronizing handouts. When the issue is reparations, just say no.

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