Last spring, I waged a campaign on college campuses against the idea that reparations for slavery, an institution that has been dead for 137 years, should be paid to black people who have never been slaves, by their fellow Americans who never owned slaves, and paid to them on the basis of their skin color alone. Friendly critics to my left and right asked me why I would even bother to conduct a campaign against an idea that is so easily discredited, one which had no chance of being put into law. My Salon colleague Joan Walsh accused me of being a "racial provocateur," stirring up trouble where there wasn't any. Even sympathetic readers asked why I'd endure the smears of racial demagogues (my account of these smears has just been published in a book called "Uncivil Wars") to oppose a bizarre idea that could not possibly fly.
My critics' optimism that the poorly reasoned case for reparations could never gain a mainstream hearing was misplaced. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree has teamed up with the godfather of the reparations movement, Randall Robinson, to put a new legal spin on the issue. Ogletree and a team of billion-dollar class action attorneys are smart enough to know taxpayers might not be thrilled about the reparations idea. So they're going after everybody's favorite enemy, American corporations, trying to make them pay reparations for their ancient ties to slavery, in the hopes that a more general push for reparations from Congress might take off from there. And they may well succeed.
The Reparations Coordinating Committee is the legal "dream team" proposing to sue any large corporation that can be tied -- however tenuously -- to a corporate predecessor that may have profited from slavery 150 to 200 years ago. The team includes not only Ogletree (now advising Al Sharpton on his presidential run) but Johnnie Cochran (a lawyer famous for inflicting injustice on the families of innocent victims), as well as non-lawyer but sometime rapper Cornel West, another Sharpton advisor from Harvard.
The dream team is already receiving unsolicited help from the nation's media, forced by racial protocols to treat the entire scam as a legitimate enterprise. USA Today, whose publisher is one of the targets of the shakedown, recently ran a multi-page survey of the legal efforts of Ogletree's team. The feature began with the following melodramatic (and credulous) presentation of the reparations claim:
"They owned, rented or insured slaves. Loaned money to plantation owners. Helped hunt down the runaways. Some of America's most respected companies have slavery in their pasts. Now, 137 years after the final shots of the Civil War, will there be a reckoning? A powerhouse team of African-American legal and academic stars is getting ready to sue companies it says profited from slavery before 1865. Initially, the group's aim is to use lawsuits and the threat of litigation to squeeze apologies and financial settlements from dozens of corporations. Ultimately, it hopes to gain momentum for a national apology and a massive reparations payout by Congress to African-Americans.
The "they" in this graph does not refer to any real person or corporation who might actually be hauled into court. In the first place, many of the corporations targeted did not even exist before the Emancipation Proclamation and are not really the same corporations as those identified in the claims. Instead they are only connected to the allegedly offending corporations as a result of mergers and acquisitions. And in fact, even those corporations that have the same name as they did during slavery are not really the same corporation. The presumption behind the reparations suit is that a corporation is a fact of nature, like a mountain or a tree. But the wealth of corporations is not simply accumulated like water in a stream -- or money in the bank.
Within the last six months, two of the largest corporations in history, Enron and Global Crossing, have sunk ignominiously into oblivion, going from hundreds of billions in assets to zero. Corporations are institutions composed of living beings, requiring enormous effort and sacrifice and relentless performance to keep them prospering and growing. The reparations suit will unjustly punish living officers, employees and shareholders of the targeted corporations (not to mention their customers) for acts they had nothing to do with and that were not even crimes when they were committed 150 years ago (since slavery was legal at the time).
To compound the injury inherent in the claim itself, the reparations law team has mostly targeted corporations that have been pioneers in affirmative action and diversity programs, in huge benefactions to black institutions in general, and schools and scholarship programs for black children in particular. The suits are a way of extorting even more money from people who have already given generously, by accusing them of crimes they didn't commit. It is a repellent and preposterous idea. But at Harvard it seems compelling nonetheless.
The good news is that the law will not allow the extortionists their pound of flesh. The torts are too old, the accusations too vague, the connections to real world facts too tenuous. To allow the reparations suits to succeed would set a destructive precedent and permit massive injustice to leak into the system. The courts won't let that happen.
The bad news is that the law doesn't matter, since it can be overwhelmed by a racially inflamed emotional argument. This was the word from Owen Pell, an attorney who represents targeted companies, who told USA Today that the reparations movement couldn't win in court but added: "Companies have learned you don't judge a lawsuit by its merits. You judge it by the potential public relations damage. Corporate America is following this issue. They understand how nasty it could get if someone comes in and says you have blood on your hands."
I understand this too, personally. I was at the University of Pennsylvania recently to speak on a panel about reparations and talk about my book "Uncivil Wars." It was the first time I had been to Penn since my reparations ad campaign last spring. The campus newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, had refused to even print the ad. Ugly characterizations of myself as well as the censored ad that nobody had seen were thus allowed to circulate without rebuttal on the campus. After the reparations panel on which I spoke, a political science professor who opposed me came up and said, "You're actually not so bad. They told me you were a monster."
But corporations cannot afford to be viewed as monsters. The reparations movement is not a civil rights movement. It is a protection racket, a shakedown by a Harvard brain trust that has devised a corrupt legal strategy to whip up a political frenzy that will achieve its desired effect. The big prize is not even corporate money. As USA Today put it: "One certainty is that the new corporate cases are merely the undercard for the main event: The Holy Grail for the reparations movement is a national apology from Congress and a massive federal payout that could take the form of direct payments to African-Americans or trillions in new spending on education and social programs aimed at them."
The truth, of course, is that American taxpayers have already spent (and are spending) trillions of dollars on education and social programs that benefit African-Americans. Thanks to the very people they want to sue for reparations, black Americans are the richest and freest blacks on earth. The reparations movement is not only insulting to the already demonstrated generosity and compassion of non-black Americans, it is dangerous and destructive to the American community as a whole, including its black citizens.
Sixty-eight percent of blacks support reparations while only 34 percent of whites do. This is a dangerous divide. A few days after the USA Today feature appeared, it was followed by a column headlined "Black History Makes U.S. National Unity A Tougher Sell." The article by black columnist Sean Gonsalves was blunt about the terms of unity he would find acceptable: "Before there can be a fruitful national dialogue about reparations, there needs to be some political consensus that a debt is owed." This is a line straight out of Randall Robinson's America-hating book "The Debt," the bible of the reparations movement.
Ten days before al-Qaida's attack on New York and the Pentagon, members of the Congressional Black Caucus were in Durban, South Africa, to attend the U.N. Conference on Racism. Heading the delegation was John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and the author of the reparations bill. The conference was hijacked by anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian radicals, so that American delegates were joining Islamic extremists condemning the United States and Britain for slavery and demanding reparations. Neither the U.S. delegates nor their Middle Eastern allies, of course, made any mention of existing black slavery in Muslim-run Sudan, or demanded reparations from that country. In fact, the United States accounted for less than 2 percent of the world slave trade in Africans, and with Britain led the world in abolishing slavery. The anti-American subtext of the exercise was underscored by NAACP chair Julian Bond, also present, who urged the U.N. to "highlight American racism," as though America had not been the leader of the anti-slavery movement, and the Arabs with whom Bond linked symbolic arms had not been the originators and primary practitioners of the global slave trade.
And even in the wake of Sept. 11, when the cost of encouraging the anti-Americanism of the Arab and Muslim world should have been especially clear, Charles Ogletree's pal Al Sharpton told a "State of the Black World" conference in Atlanta, "We don't owe America anything; America owes us." This is as terse a summation of the reparations point of view as we are likely to get. If the reparations movement and its hostile attitude toward America are not roundly rebuffed, civil discord will only be the beginning of our problems.