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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When California released the slave data, the story could have been a poignant reminder about the inhumanity of slavery. It is a sobering lesson in American history to read through the lists of souls known only by their first names, whose identities were compressed into John, steam boat fireman, or Bella, house servant, policy number (s)615-1316.

But in the context of reparations litigation, newspapers concentrated on slave descendants who hoped to track down their ancestors, mindful of the potential for a payment. "Everybody hopes that it's going to be one of their ancestors on that list," the president of the California African American Genealogical Society told a reporter.

What these seekers probably don't realize is, first, that under existing liability law, none of these lawsuits has a prayer of succeeding. But of course, facing sufficient bad publicity, some corporations might want to settle. Then will come another rude awakening for those whose ancestors were enslaved: The private reparations lawsuit in Brooklyn doesn't seek to award damages to actual slave descendants. Newspapers don't understand that either. They repeatedly refer to reparations as a movement to make the government or companies "pay damages to slaves' descendants" (to cite the Philadelphia Inquirer).

Wrong. As Jesse Jackson told the San Francisco Chronicle, reparations "will not be, 'Rowena, pick up your check at the register.'" The documentation is simply too thin. And if it were possible to track down descendants, the payout would be too small. It wouldn't be worth a lawyer's time to track down the 40 descendants of a slave once covered by a $300 premium.

And so Fagan's lawsuit, as well as groups that champion reparations to African Americans, supports payment of damages to--groups that champion African Americans. As writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson explained in the San Francisco Chronicle, forcing insurers that profited from slavery to pump money into AIDS/HIV education, remedial education, and job training would "help the black poor, not tap taxpayer dollars, and finger all whites as culpable for slavery." Not dead, slave-owning whites, or some whites, but "all whites."

And it still wouldn't be enough to wipe the slate clean. The term "reparations," after all, implies that payment for slave profits would repair the damage of slavery. But if African Americans deserve compensation for their ancestors' enslavement, why would African Americans settle for someone else getting the money? Or as Eva Paterson of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights told the San Francisco Chronicle, "The high-road side of me says this should go to a fund of some kind. But another side says give me my money. As the saying goes: If not 40 acres and a mule, then 40 acres and a Lexus."

But wait, there's more. According to Jackson, the payment of reparations shouldn't end with African Americans. Chinese Americans have cause for grievance, as the "coolie" labor of their grandparents helped build the railroads. In fact, Manhattan Life volunteered to Harry Low that it had "insured shippers for their cargo of 700 Chinese coolies on a journey from China in 1854." So it's probably only a matter of time before Chinese-American reparations lawsuits are filed. Ditto Mexican Americans who worked for substandard wages because they lacked citizenship.

YOU MIGHT THINK that Gray Davis's GOP challenger Bill Simon would be railing against Davis until his voice goes hoarse for Davis's role in promoting this Great American Shakedown. One day Simon could address the concept of holding companies accountable for crimes committed more than a century ago--or, rather, for legal but immoral long-ago deeds. Because of course the scandal of the slave insurance policies is that the law countenanced them--one more reason the lawsuits are just grandstanding. The next day Simon could explain how these bills might chase businesses out of California. And then perhaps he might ask how the millions of African Americans who today are employed by and own stock in these insurance companies will benefit from the shakedown.

Camp Simon has been slow to see the issue's significance. At first the Simon campaign refused to give a statement on reparations. More recently, Simon strategist Jeff Flint has said that the reparations bills provide "another example of Gray Davis failing to do anything for the African American, so he's trying to make up for that by pandering to Jesse Jackson." That was the best he could do. Then again, he was following the Dubya playbook. When asked about reparations, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer responds, "The president does not weigh in on any matters in the private sector involving litigants."