The state of California may be on the verge of getting in the slave reparations business. Thank Sacramento legislators who in 2000, with little fanfare or media coverage, passed two bills, signed by Gov. Gray Davis. These bills could lead to requirements that companies doing business in California pay reparations for slavery, if they or parent companies ever benefited from slavery.
At a San Francisco Chronicle editorial board meeting on Tuesday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said that the bills also could lead to reparations for Chinese Americans, because their "coolie" ancestors helped build America's railroads, as well as for Mexican Americans. Indeed, one of the bills required the state Department of Insurance to collect data on insurers' past slave policies, and one insurer responded by submitting data on "coolie" policies. On May 1, Insurance Commissioner Harry Low is set to release his findings. Next, as mandated in the companion bill, a University of California panel is expected to put a dollar figure on various parties' "economic benefits" from the slave trade.
Last month, New Jersey attorney Edward Fagan filed a lawsuit for a handful of African Americans against three corporations -- including Aetna -- because it admitted to issuing a small number of slave policies. Hence it is now clear the two bills essentially would force insurers to release information that invites people -- people whom they have never affected -- to sue them.
Which no doubt is part of the reason so few insurers -- eight out of some 1,300, according to Insurance Commissioner Harry Low -- have submitted data. And successful court challenges to a similar law requiring disclosure of Holocaust-related profits have emboldened them.
The second bill mandates a UC panel to put a figure on "the economic benefits of slavery" -- an endeavor in which advocates have been creative. Fagan's brief argued that "many American industries" profited from the cheap price of cotton, sugar, rice, tobacco and other slave-produced products -- to the tune of $1.4 trillion in today's dollars. Get it: Every major industry could be liable.
"Clearly, we want to right any wrongs and do justice to people who were taken advantage of," Davis said last week. (Just one problem, guv. The very wronged people are dead -- and most have been dead for more than a century.)
This could be a thorny issue for Davis in his re-election.
A 2001 Fox News poll found that 81 percent of registered voters oppose the U.S. government paying African Americans reparations. (Lucky for Davis, GOP challenger Bill Simon doesn't see this as a campaign issue. Simon spokesman James Fisfis told me, "That's something we probably would not comment on.")
It's not clear that Davis will retain African American votes with his position. Both Fagan and Jackson support reparations not for known slave ancestors, but for nonprofit groups that promote the victim group's interests. As Jackson told the Chronicle, "It will not be, 'Rowena, pick up your check at the register.'" A 1999 Harvard poll found that 53 percent of African Americans supported government reparations. Will that number hold when individuals find out that groups such as the Rainbow Coalition get the money -- and they don't?
Ward Connerly, who sponsored Proposition 209, which ended racial and gender preferences in state hiring and admissions, noted that once the courts accept the idea that parties can receive compensation for injuries that happened to dead people, every victim group will have a claim. "If that reasoning is accepted, there is no end to the damage that it could do to our economy."
Worse would be the damage to the American psyche. It would pay for every American to be a victim.