Reparations' slow train a comin'

Landmark legal win stokes hope of black payback




FEBRUARY 1, 2007


12:00 AM


As someone who was stolen from Africa , admittedly by my own parents, I find the idea of reparations, even when applied to blacks, to be one prickly bastard.

While other groups have received some form of recompense for historic atrocities perpetrated against them, for some reason there's often wailing and gnashing of teeth at talk of any black payback.

As bona fide remedies go, reparations are supported by international law, as exemplified by compensation paid by New Zealand for the British thievery of Maori land, the various monetary olive branches extended by the German government for their WW2 mayhem and the settling up with Japanese Americans and Canadians for internment in both countries during the same war. Did I mention the settlement won by native peoples over Canada's residential schools?

But for Africans in the Americas, reparations have been a hot-button issue since the 1690s. As far back as 1782, the Massachusetts legislature granted a slave reparations in the form of a $15 monthly pension, based on the fact that her labours had enriched her master.

Still, generations of black Americans have unsuccessfully tried to extract an apology and restitution since the 1865 "40 acres and a mule" legislation that was never enacted following Lincoln's assassination.

The movement has had many spearheads: Callie House in the 1890s, Audley Moore in the 1950s, and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in the 1980s.

But this isn't simply a matter for the judiciary. The reparations battle must be fought in the arena of public opinion before it can ultimately be won in court, the enduring preserve of the slaveholder.

Even among blacks, the case for reparations is viewed by some as black nationalist jibber-jabber.

One camp thinks calling for reparations is a cash grab that entrenches a victim mentality; the other sees it as a matter of attaining simple justice.

Then there's a group calling itself Caucasians United for Reparations and Emancipation, or CURE.

If you're of the mind that reparations are white guilt gone wild, get a load of this posting on CURE's website:

"We express our deep remorse for the ongoing wrongs committed by our people against black men, women and children in the U.S. and throughout the diaspora who are descendants of enslaved Africans.... We support and advocate reparations proposals put forward by black leaders, recognizing that white Americans have no part in deciding what is required to repair and restore the descendants of enslaved Africans individually and collectively."

But after many a setback over the years, the big daddy of reparations class action suits recently had a good day in court.

The initial case of African-American Slave Descendants, or MDL 1491, went after restitution owed by corporations. In all, nine lawsuits were filed against 19 corporations on behalf of the 35 million descendants of enslaved Africans across the U.S. The lawsuits' targets include banks, railroads (CN among them), textile companies, shipbuilders and insurance companies like New York Life for their role in underwriting 1800s slave insurance policies whose beneficiaries were the slaves' owners.

The suits, which claim that insurers perpetuated the institution of slavery by letting owners profit from the fatal outcomes of hazardous work and brutal mistreatment, were dismissed in 2004, somewhat predictably, due to the statute of limitations and the issue of standing, in that the plaintiffs were unable to trace their injury to a specific defendant among the named corporations.

That led lead plaintiff Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, an activist, lawyer and executive director of the non-profit Restitution Study Group, to rethink the approach. She came up with a consumer protection angle, the idea being that if a corporation (Lloyd's of London or the Insurance Company of North America, for example) doesn't disclose or misrepresents its slave-era roots, it is guilty of defrauding its customers, who would not willingly do business with it otherwise.

In mid-December, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago had the fortitude to uphold Farmer-Paellmann's fraud claims against 15 corporations.

Perhaps a harbinger that times are in fact a changin'? History tells us we shouldn't jump up and shake too much just yet.