The Magazine

"Forty Acres and a Lexus"

California governor Gray Davis weighs in on behalf of slave reparations.

May 27, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 36 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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California is the last place that ought to be embroiled in the slave reparations controversy. Slavery was never legal in the state. There were no plantations. Its ports were not slave trade centers--wrong coast.

Nonetheless, California has become the first state to step into the reparations game. The legislature two years ago passed, and Democratic governor Gray Davis signed, a bill requiring insurers doing business in the state to provide information on any slave policies they or predecessor companies had issued. The state's imprimatur lends undeserved credibility to the long-shot effort by race demagogues to shake down corporations for damages incurred in pre-Civil War America.

On May 1, California's insurance commissioner, Harry Low, made public data from the Slavery Era Insurance Registry. Low's office noted that 92 percent of insurers complied with the measure--with most claiming they had no hard evidence of slave policies (some had conveniently destroyed old documents). Only 8 out of more than 1,300 insurers provided comprehensive answers. Aetna, for example, produced the first names of 16 slaves covered by policies payable to the slaveowners in the event of damage to or death of the slaves.

At an April 24 press conference with Jesse Jackson, Davis said the reparations law he signed was important, because "clearly we want to right any wrongs and do justice to people who were taken advantage of." Later, his staff tried to spin that statement into meaning that Davis supported the collection of information, but that he has no position on paying reparations. As Davis eyes reelection and then the White House, his staff is hoping America won't notice that he is now the highest-ranking elected official in America to take a stand in favor of reparations.

There are two schools of thought as to who should pay slave reparations. One school--the Reparations Coordinating Committee, which includes Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, writer Cornel West, formerly at Harvard, and O.J. attorney Johnnie Cochran--wants the U.S. government to pay damages, since the American government for its first four score and seven years countenanced the insidious trade in human beings.

The other school believes that private entities--corporations, banks, and universities--that can be shown to have retained the profits of human bondage should disgorge them. It was with this in mind that then-state senator Tom Hayden drafted legislation in 2000 calling for a University of California colloquium "to draft a research proposal to analyze the economic benefit of slavery that accrued to owners and the businesses, including insurance companies and their subsidiaries, that received those benefits." Davis signed that measure, which Hayden had introduced as a companion to the insurance bill.

It seems unlikely that the state of California will use the slave registry information to levy any sort of fine against insurers, but that's not the problem. The slave registry has provided ammo to private litigants who are suing companies for damages. Reparations attorney Bruce Nagel told the Boston Herald that the California data provide "further proof that these companies were an integral part of the slave trade."

And proof is a useful commodity. In March, Nagel, Ed Fagan, and a small army of lawyers filed suit in federal court in Brooklyn against three named companies--Fleet Boston Financial Corporation, Aetna, and CSX--and one hundred "corporate (John) Does." The suit provided no specific sum for the damages of slavery, but the attorneys noted that the present value of the profits from slave labor amounts to $1.4 trillion. While the suit specified the three companies' background in the slave trade, it also noted that "all industries: raw market, retail, financial, insurance, and transportation, benefited from the reduced costs of slave-produced goods." Thus any company in business before 1865, or that bought a business that operated while slavery was legal, is liable in the eyes of reparations advocates.

Aetna provides a good example of why insurers might not want to bare all before the California Insurance Commissioner. Activist Deadria Farmer-Paellmann first approached Aetna to ask the company if it had sold any slave policies. Aetna historians checked, verified those few policies, and the company apologized for this stain on its past. Later Farmer-Paellmann became a major plaintiff in the Brooklyn reparations suit.

On May 1, Richard E. Barber--a grandson of slaves--filed suit against three other companies, including New York Life Insurance. New York Life admitted issuing slave policies but told the California insurance commissioner that after two years of selling slave policies, its trustees had voted to end the sale of all such policies in 1848.