- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

Tens of thousands of black Americans fell victim last year to an awful hoax. Via e-mail and handbills, they were encouraged to file federal income-tax claims to receive their reparations checks from the "Slave Reparations Act." Of course, there is no such law, so there were no checks in the mail. Descendants of slaves shouldn't expect any checks either, despite the landmark lawsuits filed Tuesday in New York.

The class-action suit seeks unspecified reparations from three major corporations Aetna Inc., CSX Railroad and Fleet-Boston Financial Corp. for profiting either directly or indirectly from the unpaid labor of 8 million slaves. CSX said "courtrooms are the wrong setting" to resolve the issue, and Aetna, which apologized two years ago, said that it does not believe a federal court "would permit a lawsuit over events which, however regrettable, occurred hundreds of years ago."

However, one of the lawyers handling the case, one Roger S. Wareham, said "This is not about individuals receiving checks in their mailbox," and that any payments would be put into a health-education-and-welfare fund for blacks. That's sort of the way government handles our tax dollars, isn't it? They put the money into one huge coffer and then let agency directors scratch and claw each other for their share of the pot. If that's what black Americans would have to do, it sounds pretty awful, doesn't it?

Interestingly, Mr. Wareham did not speak to the compensation owed to himself and the other lawyers. (Wink, wink.) The suit does not specify damages, either although juries would be the final arbiters if the case ever goes to court.

Indeed, the issue of the statute of limitations poses an enormous obstacle, and the legal road map taken by the plaintiffs, whose chief complainant is a 36-year-old woman named Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, is not without precedence. In fact, the lawyers are tracing steps taken by the plaintiffs who won $8 billion in damages for victims of the Holocaust and their families. The difference, and it is a big one, is that there are living victims of and witnesses to the Holocaust, which was a wholesale slaughtering of Jews. Slavery, on the other hand, was "a peculiar institution," as the antebellum South called it, but it was by all means legal.

Many black Americans are asking, "What is the point?" The Jews, whose freedom from slavery in Old Testament times is celebrated this week during Passover, are not suing the Egyptians. The British, the Irish and the French aren't suing the descendants of the Vikings. Nobody's suing the descendants of the Romans, who enslaved conquered peoples indiscriminately. What about American indentured servants? What about the blacks who don't have an Alex Haley? What about whites who can prove their ancestors weren't slave owners? Do they deserve a piece of this contrived reparations pie? And who'll divvy up said pie?

The suit isn't about individual persons getting paid. It may be about filling the coffers of the Reparations Coordinating Committee a group of legal beagles that includes the ubiquitous Johnnie Cochran and Cornel West, TransAfrica Forum's Randall Robinson, who authored the so-called slavery reparations manifesto "The Debt," and Charles Ogletree Jr., a former D.C. lawyer turned Harvard law school biggie. Also in their midst is tort specialist Stanley Chesley, who worked on the successful Holocaust reparations case. There's Rep. John Conyers just in case the group needs federal legislation regarding that little matter of the statute of limitations.

The plaintiffs' anticipated take is $1.4 trillion, based on the estimated $40 million of unpaid labor that the suit says that the U.S. economy reaped between 1790 and 1860. Certainly, CSX and other corporations earned formidable and disgraceful profits on the backs of slave and cheap labor. But theirs were lawful profits and that makes the very premise of the reparations case a sham and maybe a scam, as well.

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