Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Reparations Don't Add Up

Note: Some of the material in today’s entry has been taken from Monday’s entry on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Faithful readers of this blog – I think we’re up to three of you now – will understand that I’m still learning how to condense and organize my thoughts in an efficient manner, so thank you for obliging me!

For those of you who had a holiday Monday (those of you still with jobs, that is), by now you’ve been back to work, and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is a distant memory, if indeed it ever commanded consideration at all. In busy lives, sometimes that’s the way it is.

I, however, see so much unfinished business surrounding the topic of King and the Civil Rights Movement. Off and on in the next several days, I’d like to comment on the journey our society has taken since King’s assassination, both in terms of the civil rights idea at large, and also the state of race relations today. I'd also like to discuss what I consider to be a newly-emerging social stratification based on class, not simply race.

You May Not See It, But It's Real

Our first topic probably isn't on your radar, so you might be surprised to know that behind the scenes, the push for reparations for slavery remains alive and well for several misguided politicians and activists.

Liberal factions in America’s black community occasionally float the idea of reparations (also called restitution) with the outdated theory that for blacks to achieve a level playing field in their competition with whites, some sort of financial compensation needs to be made in remuneration for past sufferings inflicted on blacks by whites.

Unfortunately, one of the lead activists in the reparations movement hails from my native Brooklyn, New York. Deadria Farmer-Paellmann and fellow activists believe companies like Aetna, railroad company CXS, and Chase bank owe blacks upwards of $1.4 trillion, and she filed nine lawsuits in 2002 to start that repayment process. In 2007, one of her cases had made its way to the Supreme Court, where the justices declined to hear it. Still, she's raising money and support through her website for her other initiatives, and is considered a leader in the restitution movement.

In addition to private lawsuits, there are government efforts - at least at the state level - to try and get some sort of reparations process started. In Massachusetts, state representative Byron Rushing proposed this past September a bill that would force about 10 Boston companies to investigate how much they profited from slavery before the commonwealth prohibited the practice in 1790. Apparently, Rushing's state legislation is modeled after others in California and Illinois.

If you want to read more about the reparations debate simmering on the back burners, just Google the topic.

Could Payback Level the Races?

To answer this question, just think of what would be involved to develop an equitable, mathematical formula for reparations. And then think about how the overall objective of equity needs to be preserved for reparations to have any significance.

First of all, there’s the issue of who pays. As we've seen, some people want a few corporations to pay out. Others think our government should cough up the money, since slavery was actually legal. But beyond those overly-simplistic assumptions of villainy, the complexity can quickly boggle the mind.

If the government pays, that means it's paying on behalf of all living taxpayers, but is that fair? Should just the “southern” states pay? What about the British, who owned many of the ships that transported the slaves? Or the Dutch, who purchased many of the actual slaves in Africa? And then there's the sticky question about the African tribes who sold their captured enemies to the Europeans in the first place.

And why should all whites be blamed for slavery anyway? That’s racist too, isn't it? Although I'm white, neither side of my family participated in or benefited from slavery. My maternal lineage starts in New England in the early 19th Century from Scotland, and at least one of my ancestors is recorded to have been at Appomattox for the end of the Civil War (don’t hate me, southern boys!). My paternal lineage starts in New York City after World War I, from Finns who had nothing whatsoever to do with the slave trade in any way. And my family is just one story in the impossibly complex scenario of trying to determine culpability for slavery.

Big Business As An Easy Target

If people like Farmer-Paellmann have their way, major corporations will have to shell out many millions of dollars, but again I ask: how can that be fair?

For its part, Aetna has already admitted that soon after its founding in 1853, it did in fact insure slaves for slave owners, and they have already issued a corporate apology. But how could Farmer-Paellmann determine the extent to which this part of their early business actually was profitable enough to extrapolate reparations in the hundreds of millions of dollars?

Farmer-Paellmann claims to be working off of similar reparations lawsuits filed after the Nazi atrocities in Europe. Unfortunately for her, the problem is that even if the Nazi reparations are valid, they are based on a far better-documented historical period; involve significantly fewer - and more easily identifiable - perpetrators; benefit from the testimony of living witnesses; and include traceable artifacts like bank statements, heirlooms, and artwork with verifiable provenances.

It's not just Fortune 500 corporations that find themselves in the crosshairs. Oddly enough, some elite universities - including Harvard and Yale - have been targeted for reparations because some of their early endowments came from slave owners.

We haven’t even talked about determining which American blacks or black-centric organizations receive reparation payouts. Or how dollar amounts are calculated. Or about other people groups that may line up for their own reparations from the United States government or US corporations. Or how any of this will help bring any sort of closure to the atrocious legacy of slavery. After all, two wrongs do not make a right.

All of Us Need to Move On

Admit it – the past is in the past. Wrongs have been done by a variety of peoples for a variety of reasons. Government endorsement of and complicity with slavery occurred on the local, state, and national levels. Private businesses were involved, entire industries incorporated slavery into their business models. I'm not excusing the past, just explaining it.

At the same time, there were people of conviction who believed slavery was wrong, and they worked to stop it. Many helped the ones who could escape their bonds through grass-roots organizations like the Underground Railroad. Painting a race with the same brush is just what whites have been accused of doing to blacks, and just as we are wrong to do it, so are blacks.

Blaming today's whites for slavery hundreds of years ago may be some sort of panacea for some people, but it isn't a healthy way to live in our modern world. And to top it off by expecting some sort of financial payback is illogical and threatens to destroy so much of the progress that has contributed to blacks even being able to be successful lawyers and legislators in the first place.

Our history is not perfect. However, one of the marks of a modern, progressive society is being able to take what it’s been dealt and moving on with – or despite – it.

Haven't we got too much positive momentum going now to have it jeopardized by people that - may I be blunt? - are more interested in making names for themselves than serving the common good?

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