IT WAS JESSE JACKSON who, years ago, perfected the art of the racial shakedown. Preying on white guilt and corporate America’s visceral fear of bad publicity, he would make the rounds of some of the nation’s biggest companies, question why there weren’t more black faces in the workrooms, and drop a few unsubtle hints about boycotts or making his "concerns" public.
That was all it ever took. Soon thereafter, the company would sign a pledge committing itself to more "diversity," which it would back up by hiring some of Jackson’s friends to high-paying positions, or making cash payments to his organization. In one of the most unseemly examples, brewer Anheuser-Busch secured Jackson’s friendship by selling his sons a Chicago distributorship for a song (Fellow FrontPage columnist Lowell Ponte exposed the story in these pages back in 1999).
Now, USA Today reports, the champions of national slavery reparations have adopted the same approach. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree and TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson’s "dream team" of lawyers and activists are planning to present corporate America with a bill for the crimes of slave masters and traders over a century ago.
The reparations movement, of course, is nothing new. A suit against the U.S. government failed in 1995, and Rep. John Conyers (D, Mich.) has dutifully sponsored a reparations bill in Congress with no success every year since 1989. Previous attempts at redress, however, have failed because the law was never on the plaintiffs’ side, but in the case of corporate shakedowns, the law is irrelevant. It’s public pressure, public perception, and public relations that matter most.
The "dream team," formally known as the Reparations Coordinating Committee, includes O.J. lawyer Johnnie Cochran, Harvard rapper and professor Cornel West, and various other prominent leftist black lawyers and academics. The group has identified six corporations as possible targets for what would be, no doubt, only the first round of its lawsuits. The potential defendants consist of three insurance companies (Aetna, New York Life, and AIG) and three financial corporations (J.P. Morgan, Chase Manhattan, and FleetBoston).
What these six companies have in common is that all once participated in slavery or, more often than not, companies that they purchased some time in the last century participated in slavery, either by underwriting or insuring the slave trade or using slave labor. The logic of the RCC’s planned lawsuits is that the corporations’ net worth was enhanced through their cooperation in an undeniably wicked institution. Consequently, some portion of their assets should be transferred to the descendants of slaves, i.e., black Americans, however defined.
This is a variation of the standard argument for taxpayer-funded reparations, which says that because America benefited from uncompensated slave labor, it should transfer trillions of dollars from today’s general population to the presumed descendants of slavery that is, anyone deemed sufficiently black.
David Horowitz has forcefully laid out the flaws in such appeals, first in his case against reparations and then in his recent book, Uncivil Wars. The problems are both practical and moral. Not all white Americans, most of whom descend from immigrants who arrived after 1865, bear any connection, ancestrally or otherwise, to the slave trade. Likewise, not all blacks today descend from former slaves.
It’s impossible to put a price tag on the horrors of slavery, let alone to assess whose great-great-grandparents suffered most, who inflicted the most suffering, and who sacrificed their very lives to end the practice altogether. Because no slaves are still alive, the case that African Americans today deserve compensation for their ancestors’ torment necessarily rests on the premise that the "vestiges of slavery" still hold black Americans back a claim that the tremendous wealth and success of Cochran, Ogletree, Robinson, and West impressively belies.
Ultimately, it’s untenable and wrong to punish entire races for the actions of individuals, especially individuals who are long dead.
Even though corporations are, by law, individual entities, the reparations case against them has many of the same defects. There’s no way to quantify how much a company benefited from its involvement in slavery as long as 200 years ago, or to identify the victims. Legally, the statute of limitations has long since expired.
Neither Aetna, J.P. Morgan, or any of the other proposed targets, qualifies as a "white corporation." They have black employees, shareholders, executives, and pensioners who would all share the burden of the financial devastation that could come from a racially loaded lawsuit. Customers of all races would also be affected, either through higher prices, diminished services, or fewer choices in the marketplace.
And who would benefit? While the RCC insists that it would offer its services pro bono, its members would be in the enviable position of deciding where tens of millions of dollars in settlement money would be distributed. Well-connected left-wing advocacy groups, charities, and universities would be the recipients of massive transfers of wealth. The average African American, the nominal beneficiary of such a case, would get nothing.
Once again, the law isn’t on the reparations-seekers’ side, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Few corporations want to be associated with slavery, much less the negative publicity that Oglretree, Cochran, et al. could quickly generate. For most, buying their way out of the shakedown will seem a less costly alternative than going to court.
But the cash settlements, as USA Today observes, are only the first part of the RCC’s strategy. The "dream team" predicts that the afflicted companies will seek to share their misery and lobby Washington for a federal reparations program. At that point, the precedent for collective, ancestral (and remunerative) guilt will have already been set.
It’s taking the shakedown to a whole new level.
Jesse Jackson must be proud.