Special Report

Slave Disclosure Shakedowns

"Show me the money!" is the name of the game.

By 2.17.05

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As if it doesn't have more important things to do, the New York City Council is considering legislation that advances the ridiculous agenda of the slave reparations movement.

The measure, sponsored by Councilman Charles Barron, would require that companies doing business with the city disclose whether they profited from slavery over 140 years ago. Like similar disclosure laws in Chicago and Los Angeles, the proposed ordinance would not ban companies from continuing to seek city contracts. The goal presumably is just to set the historical record straight.

However, the legislative intent is clear: Lay the foundation for a raft of costly lawsuits. Indeed, the justification for the Chicago disclosure law is to get "information as a preliminary form of discovery in an upcoming lawsuit." Reparations suits can potentially bankrupt businesses or, at the very least, leave consumers holding the tab for huge settlements. A 2004 lawsuit seeking damages from 19 corporations puts the value of slave labor at $1.4 trillion.

Besides seeking money through corporate shakedowns, reparations advocates are lobbying Congress to establish a radically expensive entitlement program for 35 million African Americans.

But since Congress is not about to seriously consider saddling taxpayers with another entitlement, activists are focusing on anti-corporate lawsuits. Such litigation helps legitimize the reparations cause in Congress. More important, lawsuits can raise tons of money to subsidize the movement -- and line the pockets of self-serving trial lawyers. Sniffing the possibility for large profits, high-powered lawyers are preparing to weigh in on the issue including Johnnie Cochran (of O.J. Simpson fame), Richard Scruggs (a key architect of the tobacco settlement), and Dennis C. Sweet III (who reaped millions from the "phen-fen" diet drug lawsuit).

Whatever money might be gained though, slave reparations lawsuits are completely without legal and ethical merit.

Holding contemporary corporations accountable for business transactions that occurred a century and a half ago is absurd. Few companies even have records from that period because they are not legally required to do so. Furthermore, many of the corporations being sued have at best a tenuous connection to the 19th century firms involved in slave-related business. Reparations suits are also unconstitutional. As tragic as slavery was, it was legal in the U.S. between 1789 and 1865. The Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws, which are laws that criminalize conduct that was legal when originally performed.

The main objection against reparations is moral. The notion of paying monetary penalties for what one's ancestor did is nonsensical. And if penalties were paid, the people getting it are not the victims but their distant descendants, many of whom are more prosperous than those who would have to pay.

It obviously defies logic to demand payment for work performed by long-dead generations. Nevertheless, the reparations movement grows because enough politicians and lawyers stand to profit from it. In addition, corporations targeted for potential litigation contribute to the problem by foolishly caving in to activists' demands.

In January, Chicago-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. announced that it would create a $5 million college scholarship fund for African Americans in Louisiana. In compliance with the city ordinance, JPMorgan disclosed that two of its predecessor banks allowed slaves to be used as collateral on loans to Louisiana plantation owners. The only reason JPMorgan is even "linked" to these dealings is that it acquired Bank One the previous year. Bank One, in turn, is "linked" because it acquired the Louisiana banks that made the antebellum loans through a series of bank mergers in the 20th century.

Although JPMorgan is not tied to these slave-related dealings, it established the scholarship fund in an attempt to appease the reparations lobby. It didn't work. Reparations advocates immediately denounced the donation as "insulting" and a "joke." Lionel Jean Baptiste, a lawyer representing plaintiffs in a reparations suit, said, "To give back $5 million does not begin to make up for the tremendous amount of wealth that JPMorgan Chase extracted from the enslaved Africans."

Activists are lining up more corporate stooges. Chicago City Councilwoman Dorothy Tillman, the city's reparations crusader, is threatening to cancel a $500 million refinancing deal with Bank of America because it is allegedly tied to slavery through a long-defunct 19th century bank acquired through mergers.

Chicago is a warning to New York. If the City Council approves Barron's disclosure bill, the city will be deluged with activists, lawyers, and shakedown campaigns for years to come. Litigation, not racial reconciliation, will be the end result.

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About the Author

John Carlisle is director of policy at the National Legal and Policy Center, a nonprofit foundation based in Falls Church, Virginia.