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By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe

April 11, 2002

Don't bother telling the plaintiffs who sued last month to collect reparations for slavery from three US corporations that they don't have a legal leg to stand on. They already know it.

After all, you don't need a law degree to recognize that FleetBoston, CSX, and Aetna bear no legal culpability today because of lawful activities their corporate ancestors may have engaged in two centuries ago. Even unlawful activities were long ago mooted by statutes of limitations. And in any case, none of the companies being sued and none of their living shareholders has ever owned or trafficked in slaves, just as none of the plaintiffs and none of the 36 million black Americans whose interests they claim to represent has ever been held in bondage. These specious lawsuits will never win.

But then, they were never expected to. The plaintiffs and their lawyers make no secret of the fact that their goal is not to win a legal verdict but to pressure the companies into making lucrative out-of-court settlements. If they balk, the lawyers' PR machine will generate ugly publicity about the companies' "insensitivity" to African Americans. Set up pickets outside their corporate headquarters. Threaten a national boycott. Maybe arrange for a public denunciation by Al Sharpton or the Congressional Black Caucus. It isn't hard to mau-mau corporate America if you know how to play the race card.

"People will come to a point of deciding, do they think a settlement is more appropriate than a trial?," says a gleeful Edward Fagan, one of the lawyers in the Aetna and CSX cases. "If . . . there's a meaningful financial gesture by the defendant companies, then I would encourage the clients to seriously consider it." Similar comments have come from Randall Robinson and Johnnie Cochran, charter members of the self-designated "Reparations Coordinating Committee."

In short, the reparations lawsuits are just the latest twist on Jesse Jackson's long-running racial hustle: Pay up or be smeared as racist. (A compelling account of Jackson's decades-old racket -- Shakedown by Kenneth Timmerman -- has just been published by Regnery.) And the extortion isn't going to end with FleetBoston, Aetna, and CSX: The plaintiffs' lawyers say they have already sent letters inviting settlement offers to another dozen companies, and claim to have identified 1,000 corporations and other institutions that profited in some fashion from slavery.

There's no telling how much money these reparations suits will ultimately extract. Hundreds of millions? Billions? Ultimately, that bill will be paid by American shareholders, employees, and consumers of every color, race, and ethnic background. But a far steeper price will be paid exclusively by American blacks -- especially poor American blacks -- themselves. For every dollar of "reparations" paid, awarded, or extorted will just reinforce the crippling messages of inferiority and grievance that have done so much damage to the black community over the past 35 years.

You cannot make it on your own, the reparations movement says to black Americans. The deck is stacked against you. You are victims in this country; you have always been victims. You'll never succeed in America because America is fundamentally racist. All your troubles -- your unemployment, your drug use, your fatherless families, your kids' academic failure, your violent crime, your domestic abuse, your imprisoned young men -- all of them are the fault of others. Don't blame yourselves, blame white America for never giving you a fair shake. Blame Jim Crow and the decades of segregation. Blame "institutional racism." Blame racial profiling.

Blame slavery.

If black Americans deserve reparations from anyone, it is from the disgraceful black leaders who feed them this diet of self-pity and helplessness. It may be true that slavery and its aftermath continue in some way to exercise a sinister influence on American society. But that influence cannot come close to the massive damage done to black Americans by the constant insistence that success is impossible until every vestige of racism is eradicated and the "debt" for slavery paid in full.

Slavery was a horror and Americans paid a horrific price to uproot it. But every minority group has grievances against the majority. Every group has awful chapters of persecution and humiliation to remember. Only blacks have allowed themselves to be crippled by the lie that the past must forever hold them back. Only the so-called black "leadership" insists on peddling the myth that America is a relentlessly racist place in which blacks are doomed to defeat.

The truth is precisely the opposite. As Stanley Crouch has written, there is no "more advanced or influential group of black people on the face of this earth than African-Americans." By almost any measure -- income, homeownership, social integration, college education, political power -- black Americans are better off today than they have ever been before.

Reparations' bottom line is that black people are permanent losers who cannot rise above their history. That is a terrible libel, and no one but a racist would believe it.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
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