More folly from the fringe -- slavery reparations

"Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen."

    -The autobiography of Mark Twain -

 I once had a law professor who said Boston’s New England School of Law was a place suitable "only for talking dogs and women." I never really knew what he meant. Until now.

    Meet Deadria Farmer-Paellman, an African-American activist pursuing apologies and possibly reparations from any and all industries which can, however tortuously, be linked to slavery in the United States. She’s also a lawyer – a graduate of the aforementioned New England School of Law.

    Farmer-Paellman has made news by demanding (and perhaps more astonishingly, receiving) apologies from insurance companies who issued policies on the lives of slaves, policies paid for by the slave owners. She believes that some sort of monetary compensation is also due.

    And she is not alone. California recently passed a law requiring insurance companies to hand over all details about slave policies they may have written 150 years ago.

    Supporters of the legislation acknowledge it is but a first step in determining whether reparations should be sought. They cite the recent settlements between Nazi Holocaust victims and their insurance companies as a precedent. They ignore the significant distinction that those Holocaust victims actually paid premiums on policies that were never paid out.

    Likewise, Japanese-Americans who received compensation for their imprisonment, are either still alive or one generation removed.

The slavery reparations movement seeks apologies and to uncover and redistribute profits from industries which were connected to slavery – including, the look, the feel, the fabric of our lives – cotton. Better get used to wearing polyester again.

    An economy supported by slave labor helped companies prosper, and restitution can be claimed based on unjust enrichment, says Farmer-Paellman.

    The Hartford Courant issued a front page apology for running slave-related classified ads in the 19th century.

    It is easy to make a case against slavery reparations – most American families arrived in the United States long after the Civil War (including many black people). Of the whites who were here in antebellum America, 90% did not own slaves. There were black slave owners. Many African - Americans have no slaves in their family histories. And on and on.

    It’s also easy to argue why smokers shouldn’t get money from tobacco companies. But there’s no shortage of juries who haven’t yet figured out big-money verdicts, like targeted payments to one group or another, are parimutuel endeavors paid for by consumers and not the "house."

    A more significant question is why there are so many very well-credentialed African-Americans who believe that reparations is a very justifiable cause. True, some of them say it’s not about money, but justice and fairness – and this always means it’s about the money. But there are many who genuinely believe that apologies and reparations would be a help to the persistent less-than equal status endured by many American black people.

    And that’s the mystery. Would any self-respecting Irishman want to sue the English for their role in the Potato Famine? Should Jews, as descendants of Moses, sue the Egyptians as descendants of the Pharaoh for their time spent in bondage? The perpetrators are long dead, there comes a time to let those people go.

    African-Americans are not the grandchildren of slaves, not the great-grandchildren of slaves and only the old are great - great - grandchildren of slaves. They are, however, disproportionately subject to the worst social pathologies in our American society. Whether or not that condition is caused by the "legacy of slavery" is an argument for historians and sociologists.

    To be sure, the Farmer-Paellman’s of the nation don’t speak for black people anymore than fringe white activists represent everyday white people. But it is the squeaky wheel who gets greased, and so her cause receives far more attention than it merits.

    If anything, her quest would increase the victimization mentality which one might argue has kept the African-American community from obtaining the equality it desires and deserves. The trillions of dollars that reparations advocates say is owed to African-Americans has been more than repaid by the trillions in social programs designed to help impoverished city - dwellers.

    Good intentions notwithstanding, federal programs have probably done as much harm as good to minorities. And most of the latter has come from those actions which do not involve writing checks directly to the recipient. College scholarships – good. Welfare payments – not so good.

    The idea of slavery reparations is just the latest civil rights novelty to come down the pike. We should look it over, furrow our brows for a moment, and then move on to things that make a little more sense.

    Just as we would with a talking dog.


November 27, 2000