Johnnie Cochran is about to play the race card once again. The lawyer who used race so effectively in winning an acquittal for O.J. Simpson, despite overwhelming evidence of his client's guilt, has now jumped on the reparations bandwagon. Cochran and a group of successful trial lawyers will meet in Washington later this month to discuss strategy in a class action suit they will file against the government and private companies for their role in perpetrating and profiting from slavery. But average black Americans shouldn't hold their breath waiting for any real benefits to come their way. Even in the unlikely event that Cochran and his colleagues are successful, the lawyers would rake in millions, while the plaintiffs divide the crumbs, as they do in most class-action lawsuits.
The subject of reparations for slavery has gained new popularity in recent months, spurred by a book published earlier this year titled "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks." The book's author, Randall Robinson, is no crank, but rather the influential president of TransAfrica and the man who successfully led the movement for economic sanctions against South Africa's apartheid government in the 1980s.
Nonetheless, the quest for reparations for slavery has about it the smell of exploitation. Cochran, Robinson and other high-profile blacks associated with this new movement stand to benefit from speaking and professional fees, book sales, and the notoriety that comes with TV appearances to push their program. But what about ordinary African Americans? Unfortunately, the reparations argument perpetuates the image of blacks as victims, as pernicious and self-defeating a stereotype as even the most virulent racist could concoct.
John H. McWhorter, a young black linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, calls it "the cult of victimology." McWhorter's new book "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America" argues powerfully that black leaders have transformed victimhood "from a problem to be solved into an identity itself." This leads, in turn, to the need to magnify every racial slight into evidence of apocalyptic injustice. McWhorter cites dozens of examples of successful black professionals who still insist on being treated as victims. But victimology, McWhorter warns, stems from a lethal combination of "an inherited inferiority complex with the privilege of dressing down the former oppressor." And it is precisely this odd psychological combination that makes the reparations debate a dangerous one.
Reparations would divide Americans into oppressors and oppressed. In order to justify reparations for crimes committed some 135 years earlier, it is necessary not only to identify present-day victims but current victimizers, as well. Are all blacks victims? Is Oprah Winfrey a victim, despite her millions and her undeniable success and fame? What about Tiger Woods -- is he only a partial victim because he is part Asian and white as well as black? Or Hakeem Olajuwon, whose ancestors remained free in Africa?
And what about the victimizers? Are the descendants of the men who gave their lives in the Civil War to end slavery guilty, too? Are the grandsons and granddaughters of Italian and Polish immigrants, who came to America long after slavery was abolished, culpable nonetheless? What about the Mexican and Chinese immigrants who just arrived within the last decade? Will everyone be taxed to pay out reparations -- including blacks? And who will determine how much each victim is owed?
But most importantly, do Johnnie Cochran and his fellow trial-lawyers really believe that the problems that still plague the black community will in any way be solved by reparations? Will reparations find responsible, loving fathers for the 70 percent of black babies born out of wedlock each year? Will reparations stop young black men from killing and maiming each other on the street? Will they close the skills gap between black and white high school graduates or help a single black child to read?
Or will the talk of reparations simply pump up more business for a group of already successful and wealthy black lawyers like Johnnie Cochran?