Study Won't Sway Whites on Reparations

History of sorts was made when a beaming California Governor Gray Davis stood shoulder to shoulder with Jesse Jackson at a Silicon Valley cyber conference, April 25 and called for "justice" on slave reparations. Davis is the nation's highest-ranked state official to give official blessing to the reparations movement.

Davis' pro reparations nod came on the eve of the May 1 public release of a landmark study by the California Department of Insurance of slave era insurance policies. The insurance department skipped the moral, and historical hand wringing over the evils of slavery. Instead, it named names of hundreds of slaves and their masters in California, and produced copies of insurance policies taken out on them.

This virtually gives smoking gun proof that some insurance companies profited mightily from slavery.

Therefore, reparations advocates say, they can and should be sued. But targeting corporations, rather than the government for slave complicity, and getting the backing of state officials, still won't make reparations an easier sell to most whites. While most whites admit that slavery was inhumane, and agree that it was right to pay victimized groups such as Holocaust survivors, Native-Americans, and Japanese-Americans interned during World War II for their suffering, they are still not willing to pay blacks a nickel for theirs. Polls still show that the overwhelming majority of whites vehemently oppose any slave reparations.

A bill by House Democrat John Conyers, Jr., that calls for Congress to shell out a few million dollars to set up a commission to study the feasibility of paying reparations for slavery has kicked around Congress for years. And it is no closer to passage today than when it was introduced. Many blacks chalk up reflexive white resistance to the Conyers' bill, and reparations, to racism and ignorance. This is much too simple.

The passage of three civil rights bills, numerous affirmative action statutes, stacks of court decisions that guarantee civil rights and civil liberties protections, a tepid acknowledgment from former President Bill Clinton that slavery was wrong, and massive government spending on business, education, housing, health and social programs for blacks seems more than enough to right the historic injustice of slavery and its legacy.

Even Aetna insurance, after it was publicly lambasted two years ago for writing slave policies, quickly apologized and noted that it does millions in business with minority contractors, and a substantial number of its workers and managers are minorities.

The argument that the U.S., German, and Japanese governments made payments and offered apologies to Japanese-Americans, Holocaust survivors and Korean comfort women for atrocities committed against them doesn't fly. There is near universal public and official consensus that they were the victims of outrageous violations of civil and international law and should have been paid.

There are also a few cases where government agencies have paid, or are considering paying, blacks' racial suffering. These include the sacking by a white mob of the all-black town of Rosewood in 1923, and the two decades-long syphilis experiment begun in the 1930s by the U.S. Public Health Service that turned black patients into human guinea pigs.

The Oklahoma state legislature is also currently considering reparations payments to the survivors and their descendants of the destruction of black neighborhoods in Tulsa by white mobs in 1921. But these were victim-specific injustices that had nothing to do with slavery. And it took decades of struggle against recalcitrant government agencies by the black descendants of the victims to get the relatively small amounts of money they were paid.

The IRS recently disclosed some blacks, egged on by unscrupulous tax preparers, have filed claims for "reparations deductions." There is, of course, no such tax deduction. The filings are phony and illegal and have cost the treasury millions of dollars. The IRS has prosecuted the preparers and promises to prosecute anyone who makes these claims. What's worse, these scams give more ammunition to reparations opponents who brand reparations as nothing but a get-rich-quick hustle.

Then there's the astounding wealth and success of celebrities such as Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, black corporate heads; and the recent Census figures that show a record-low black poverty rate, and record high black income. Many whites see this as ironclad proof that blacks are better off than ever.

Still, despite the granite-like resistance to reparations, a case still can be made that the insurance companies that made money off slavery could with relatively little financial risk pump funds into specific projects such as AIDS/HIV, education and prevention, remedial education, job skills and training, drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation, computer access and literacy training.

This would help the black poor, not tap taxpayer dollars, nor finger all whites as culpable for slavery. But given the gaping racial fault line on reparations, the California study probably won't convince more whites that the insurance companies should even do that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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