No Justice - Just Greed

May 5, 2002

by John K. Bates

The issue of slavery reparations continues to make some headway in popular circles. The latest foray into the world of black bribery involves a lawsuit against three big pocket corporations - Aetna, CSX Corp. and FleetBoston Financial - all of which stand accused of having “profited” from the slave trade before 1865. To the plaintiffs of this travesty, the issue is about justice. Since these companies profited - and presumably continue to share in some for of profitability from those long-ago earned dollars - they must be made to pay up.

But is this issue - and this lawsuit - about justice? Or is it about something else? Is it about what most lawsuits these days are about - greed? A closer look does not paint a good picture of the pro-reparations movement.

First off, can it be considered coincidence that the companies targeted by the reparations lawsuits all have deep pockets and healthy bottom lines (Aetna has $43 billion in assets; CSX, $20 billion)? Justice is supposed to blind, and deaf - and austere. If justice is truly the issue, then why limit any lawsuits to rich corporations? Should not those brought to court include large companies, small companies, and even individuals tainted by slavery’s stain? By focusing on three companies with deep pockets, the reparations supporters seek to dispense not justice, but cold hard cash.

Furthermore, what exactly is justice? Is justice defined simply by monetary gain and punishment? If slavery was so heinous that these companies are guilty of “human rights violations,” as Ed Fagan, lead counsel in the reparations case has claimed, do not the leaders of these companies deserve to face criminal prosecution? After all, they have profited from heinous acts, and they did so knowingly. Should they not be made to suffer? If the sins of the father can be applied to these distant sons’ wallets, they should be applied to the distant sons’ freedoms as well. There is absolutely no difference in logic in the two positions.

Which brings us to another nasty component of this entire mess, the concept of “sins of the father.” In this country at least, people have not been held accountable for their ancestors’ actions. If my father - or his father, or grandfather, or great-great-grandfather - was a despicable human being who hurt many people, I cannot and should not be held accountable for his actions. That is how it always has been, and how it always must be. In a country where individual freedom is cherished (mostly) above all else, individual responsibility must follow. And it is no different with companies. Companies are run by people and owned by people, usually millions of shareholders. None of these shareholders were alive before 1865. Are we to say to these individuals that they should be knowingly punished for the legal actions of seven-generation-removed corporate officers? Can we honestly make the case that they have knowingly and criminally profited from the legal actions taken over 140 years in the past?

Which brings up yet another issue: The pro-reparations crowd makes much of the fact that Aetna, CSX and FleetBoston (and as of Thursday, Norfolk Southern Railroad, New York Life, and Brown Brothers Harriman) profited from slavery. They conveniently forget the fact that, damaging as the concept is to our fragile sensitivities today, slavery was legal in portions of these United States until 1865, and legal in the court of world law until some time after that (indeed, it is still practiced in parts of Africa, but gets little notice because the both the slaves and enslavers are black, a stunning hypocrisy if there ever was one). The companies in question and anyone who ever owned slaves or profited from slavery were engaged in a perfectly legal activity at the time. To punish them now is to throw away equal protection of the law and to set a horrid precedent. Imagine if other laws could be made retroactive. Imagine punishing political candidates or dissidents by passing laws that made their activities of 10 years ago subject to persecution. People would not stand for such tomfoolery. Yet that is exactly the concept behind seeking 150-year-delayed punishment for then-legal acts of corporations. It is changing the rules of the game after the game is played, and it is wrong in a country supposedly of laws.

Let us now for a moment switch from the theoretical and the legalistic problems with reparations and instead focus on some of the practical problems. Who, for example, owns Aetna stock and therefore will face punishment? White people? Certainly they seem to be the targets. What of black people? In an age of a growing black middle class owning mutual funds and 401 (k) accounts, most certainly blacks will be punished. Do they deserve to be punished? How about the black employees of CSX? Have they done anything to deserve the evisceration of their way of life? Can they get compensation if their employer goes bankrupt and they become unemployed? Or are they to be considered sacrifices to the plaintiffs and their very wealthy trial lawyers, made to suffer so that the very rich get even richer?

Speaking of the trial lawyers, if this nonsense continues, what of them? Are they all pure and clean? Did some of their distant ancestors profit from slave labor, thus paving their eventual way into law school and loads of dollars? If so, how can they justify their actions? Or will they work pro bono, with perhaps a payment to their clients for all the riches earned before they successfully sure the evil slave companies? And what of the plaintiffs? It is an established fact that blacks owned blacks during the era of slavery. Are some of these plaintiffs hiding some skeletons in their distant closets? Have they profited, even if unknowingly? Should they be made to give their newfound riches to someone higher on the victim scale? Will such a scale be created? If so, who will create it?

This all reminds me of an old South Park episode, where “Petey the Sexual Harassment Panda” visits the school. After hearing his spiel, Cartman decides he is the victim of sexual harassment and sues. He wins, and gets half of Stan’s belongings. This is soon followed by other students and adults all suing each other. Cartman gets his just desserts by being penalized $2 million dollars for telling a student to do something inappropriate. The only winner in the entire affair is Kyle’s dad, the lawyer who represents everyone against everyone else and becomes very wealthy. The story is a farce, of course, but it makes a point: Everyone is a both a victim and a perpetuator of sexual harassment because the definition of sexual harassment is so broad (no pun intended) that there is no way anyone can escape either.

And so it will be with reparations. Partly because slavery happened so long ago, partly because it was legal at the time, partly because more or less everyone was connected to it in some form, and partly because American society has become quite integrated, no one will be considered innocent of the stain of slavery. There is probably no one on either the plaintiff or defendant side of reparations that is completely pure, especially if held to the very broad standards presented in last week’s lawsuit. There is therefore no choice but to sue everyone, with everyone at some point being made to pay.

One final point: Do the plaintiffs in the reparations suit believe that they would be better off still living in Gambia, or the Ivory Coast or anywhere else in Africa? The GDP of the nations on Africa’s “slave coast” today averages less than $1,000. Those countries are marginal democracies at best, and are primarily rural and poor. Black Americans, for all their troubles and travails (and this space does not seek to diminish those troubles) have an average GDP some 30 times their African brethren. They live in a modern, prosperous, technologically advanced society with guaranteed rights and freedoms. Although their ancestors were brought here under the most barbaric of conditions and treated horribly for years during and after slavery, can these people honestly make the case that they are worse off than those who remained in Africa? Compare the two places and make the call. It is clear that the descendants of slaves have reaped a legacy or prosperity their “free” African forefathers can only today dream of. Reparations are not necessary to administer justice. American capitalism has already done so.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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