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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And yet, far from being a matter in the private sector, the injustice of slavery is an issue of the profoundest national importance. And the deep understanding of most Americans is that reparations were paid in the years 1861-1865, although there remained plenty to atone for thereafter. Today's political leaders may want to dodge the topic, but they could do worse than to cite Abraham Lincoln, who eloquently confronted the issue of reparations in his Second Inaugural address: "Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away," Lincoln said. "Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

Today the Bush and Simon teams clearly do not understand what average voters feel in their bones and what Davis aides themselves know all too well: Reparations is the ultimate wedge issue. Reparations cut to the very core of what is just and unjust. If the state sanctions suits designed to, as Earl Ofari Hutchinson said, "finger all whites"; if it doesn't matter that working people and their immigrant parents had to scrape and sacrifice for everything they have; if it doesn't matter that over 100,000 Union soldiers died in battle and millions of other Americans sacrificed and suffered to end slavery; if California can punish individuals for what their long-dead ancestors did somewhere else; and if a group of lawyers and demagogues can win government-sanctioned retribution for crimes committed a century or more ago--then Sacramento might as well be Palestine and California might as well be Bosnia.

If California agencies or California courts punish companies for distant crimes, they will be penalizing hard-working shareholders, consumers, and workers for sins they abhor, never committed, and never had an opportunity to stop. To punish innocent people in the name of justice would be a travesty.

Debra J. Saunders is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.