John Leo
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."

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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