No Justice in Reparations

Debra J. Saunders

3/31/2002 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
Is victimhood in America so endless that it survives beyond death, passing from one generation to the next? The answer will be yes, if a lawsuit filed in a New York federal court succeeds. The suit, filed by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann on behalf of herself and other descendants of slaves, seeks reparations from three companies -- FleetBoston, Aetna and CSX -- because they profited from slavery before it was outlawed in 1865. The three companies, the lawsuit reads, "conspired with slave traders, with each other, and with entities and institutions (whose identities are not yet specifically identified, but which are herein described as Corporate Does No. 1-100) and other unnamed entities and-or financial institutions to commit and-or knowingly facilitate crimes against humanity, and to further illicitly profit from slave labor." What about the statute of limitations, which might be three years in a civil case? The plaintiffs' attorney, Ed Fagan, answered that because targeted companies never "disgorged" slave-related profits, the wrongdoing hasn't ended. Also, for some civil cases, the statute of limitations begins after a victim obtains the knowledge needed to sue someone. Some two years ago, after Farmer-Paellmann made inquiries, Aetna found evidence that it issued 16 slave insurance policies. Aetna released the information and apologized. (The policies don't paint a pretty picture, as Aetna wouldn't pay for the death of slaves who were lynched, worked to death or committed suicide.) Fagan argued that the statute of limitations clock started running when Aetna released that information. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley noted that to collect damages for slavery, "You have to be the direct victim of an enslaving act." Fagan says no: "It's not a claim that it's predicated on, 'You did this directly to me.' It's, 'You were part of a broad conspiracy, the object of the conspiracy was the enslavement of individuals.'" According to the lawsuit, practically every U.S. corporation -- read: "Corporate Does" and "unnamed entities" -- doing business before 1865 or that bought a business operating before 1865, benefited from cheap slave labor -- to the tune of $1.4 trillion in present-day dollars. Which means almost every American with a pension or stocks -- including African Americans -- could be liable for reparations. It's so un-American. The punishment fits someone else's crime. And the money won in court or in settlements wouldn't even go to slave descendants. Checks would not be sent to individuals, Fagan noted; the money would go into a humanitarian fund for African-Americans. Are you going to sue newspapers? "No comment," said Fagan. Then, "I laugh because everyone wants to know if we're going after the newspapers." That's because some publishers have found that their newspaper, or papers they purchased, profited from slave advertising, and rightly apologized. The Hearst Corp., which writes my paycheck, didn't know if Hearst papers ever ran slave ads. "Your call is the first call I've received on the topic," said a spokesman. Normally, I'd suggest that the Hearst suits check and, if Hearst Corp. did profit from slavery, that it issue an apology. But this lawsuit provides companies with a reason not to look to see if their history is tarnished with the ugly profits of bondage, depravation and misery. It tells companies to burn their archives lest they provide fodder for a lawsuit. The suit also mentions universities. The taint is everywhere. The taint is everywhere without a lawsuit, because slavery leaves its woeful mark on the American soul. With a lawsuit, the taint of slavery is everywhere, and it's followed by a new injustice -- a very small group of African Americans loudly proclaiming that they are victims of centuries-old sins and demanding money for damages they didn't suffer from people who had nothing to do with slavery. That's not justice. It's not even retribution.