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The Call For Reparations Reaches A New Level
(Posted April 2, 2002)

The struggle for slavery reparations entered a new phase on March 26, when attorney Deadria Farmer-Paellmann filed a lawsuit against Aetna, CSX and FleetBoston, corporations she accuses of profiting from the slave trade.  Stating that the companies were "unjustly enriched" in numerous ways by slavery, "an immoral and inhumane deprivation of Africans' life, liberty, African citizenship rights, cultural heritage and the fruits of their own labor," this is likely the first of several legal actions intended to achieve compensation for the descendants of slaves.

As expected, the filing of the suit was criticized on several fronts.   The defendants, while not denying the charges, responded by saying "courtrooms are the wrong setting for this issue," since slavery ended in the 1860s.  Other commentators were quick to call the idea of reparations poor policy.  President Bush is on record as opposing reparations.

These reactions are par for the course, as many people, cutting across racial and political lines, get extremely nervous when the topic of reparations is raised.   They are quick to list a number of reasons as to why reparations should not be considered, ranging from the aforementioned sense that too much time has passed to the difficulty of proving that someone was a descendant of a slave to fears that they will stimulate racial conflict.  None of these excuses adequately addresses the underlying question about reparations: will America ever take responsibility for its involvement in slavery?

The impact of slavery is hard to deny.  The current value of slave labor is estimated at $1.4 trillion and as many as 28 million lives were affected by the slave trade, forming the basis for economic, cultural and political disparities present in much of west Africa and black America.  That includes the existence of white privilege, a belief system that began during slavery and continues to benefit all whites, regardless of whether their ancestors actively participated in the slave trade. Factor in the century or so of legalized discrimination and it is clear that blacks have suffered what some call a Black Holocaust, without as much as an apology from the perpetrators.

Dating from the government's refusal to honor its promise of 40 acres and a mule during Reconstruction, society has refused to come to terms with slavery, as if it were a bad dream to be wished away.  Revisionist historians have attempted to classify the Great Society of the 1960s and affirmative action as evidence that the legacy of the peculiar institution has been remedied, ignoring the fact that these programs were created as a politically expedient solution by politicians.  Indeed, the mere existence of these programs is largely dictated by the desires of whites, whose commitment to ending discrimination tends to run in cycles, as evidenced by the current debate over affirmative action in education and federal employment. Most recently, at the UN Conference on World Racism, the United States and Europe battled to avoid calling the slave trade a crime against humanity, indicating that much of the Western world does not want to deal with the issue.

A major reason given for opposition to reparations centers around the assumption that great amounts of money will be awarded to blacks. In reality, there has been no formal decision as to what form compensation should take.  In addition to the restitution of the slave labor used by the the companies, which should be easily determinable, Farmer-Paellmann's suit seeks the appointment of a historic commission to study the legacy of slavery and decide how it may best be rectified.

Thanks to the efforts of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA) and Randall Robinson, whose book The Debt helped bring the idea of reparations into the mainstream, the demand for reparations is growing ever louder, with a majority of blacks supporting the concept. This issue could define the social justice struggle of the 21st century, as more people are realizing that the civil rights movement has not eradicated inequalities in America. The roots of black racial inequality are based in slavery, and until that legacy is addressed, America is doomed to a never-ending cycle of racial tension. 

Visit N'COBRA's website, http://www.ncobra.com/ for more information about reparations.

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