REPARATIONS MOVEMENT IN TROUBLE, A NEWS ANALYSIS, WEEK OF JULY 14-20, 2005
by CASH MICHAELS
The Wilmington Journal
Originally posted 7/18/2005
Is the movement to have reparations paid to the descendants of enslaved Africans in trouble?
Recent events, particularly a legal setback last week, suggests that the momentum slavery reparations advocates had in recent years may have significantly slowed, if not come close to a halt.
And public opinion, which was never really on the side of the movement, seems to have turned even more aggressive in its opposition.
Last week in Chicago, a federal judge threw out a 2002 lawsuit that, if successful, would have made 17 corporations that profited from the African slave trade, including J. P. Morgan Chase and R. J. Reynolds Tobacco pay, the descendants.
In his 104-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Norgle said the attempt to seek reparations "more than a century after the end of the Civil War and the formal abolition of slavery fails."
Norgle recognized that slavery has caused "tremendous suffering and ineliminable scars," but "present day Americans are not morally or legally liable for historical injustices,...the debt to African-Americans has already been paid, and ...reparations talk is divisive, immersing African-Americans in a culture of victimhood."
Judge Norgle went on to say those seeking reparations through the courts "face insurmountable problems..."
in proving that they have been suffered "at the hands of the defendants (corporations)." He added that despite terms like "intentional representation" and "unjust enrichment," plaintiffs failed to prove in "concrete" terms that they've been individually harmed, and thus, fail to have standing.
"Plaintiffs cannot establish a personal injury sufficient to confer standing by merely alleging some genealogical relationship to African-Americans held in slavery over 100, 200, or 300 hundred years ago," Norgle wrote, adding that the lawsuit was brought too late, and only the president of the United States or the Congress has the power to make amends.
"Claims asserting harms against groups of long-dead victims, perpetrated by groups of long-dead wrongdoers, are particularly difficult to bring in modern American courts of law."
Norgle's decision effectively kills the reparation drive in federal District Court. Its only chance now is in the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Saying that this was only the beginning, attorney Lionel Jean-Bapiste, the plaintiffs' lead counsel, acknowledged that the ruling was a bitter setback, but he assured that it will be appealed.
"There will be not be any slowing down of the efforts to get these corporations to pay back what they have amassed on the backs of millions of Africans," he said.
This isn't the first blow against slavery reparations struck by Judge Norgle.
In January 2004, Norgle threw out a consolidated lawsuit against the corporations, saying that no direct connection was established by the plaintiffs to prove harm.
Dr. Conrad Worrill, chairman of the National Black United Front, called Judge Norgle "a liar" regarding the plaintiffs' "failure" to establish a direct connection, and further accused Norgle of being a product of "conservative, right-wing, judicial political decisionmaking."
This recent federal ruling flies in the face of corporations like Wachovia and Bank of America admitting that companies in their lineage did profit from the slave trade. Both companies, which were required in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago to make those disclosures, have made apologies, and have set up token scholarship programs in certain areas.
But there are those who vehemently oppose even the idea of reparations for the long ago cruel institution of slavery.
˜Before Wachovia Bank Chairman and CEO Ken Thompson and his Bank of America counterpart Ken Lewis do too much hand wringing about their companies' past ties to slavery, they should set aside "white guilt" and consider the issue from a historical perspective," Bill Ward, a Salisbury-based writer wrote in his July 7 op-ed for the Charlotte Observer. "If they don't, they'll be fair game for every race-baiting extortionist that comes along."
"Corporate leaders owe themselves and their stockholders a strong defense against intimidation by fast-buck operators seeking deep pockets under the guise of make-believe justice," Ward added.
Reparations for slavery isn't the only kind getting the thumbs down from the legal system.
Last May, the US Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that the statute of limitations had run out on any claims by the surviving victims of the 1921 Tulsa, Okla. race riots – where hundreds of blacks were murdered by angry whites. Many blacks there lost their businesses and property as a result. The Oklahoma Legislature, which authorized a commission to research and officially ratify the facts, turned down all requests for reparations, as did the Oklahoma courts.
Here in North Carolina, business lobbyists pressured a Democrat House committee chairman to effectively kill a slavery info/state contract bill that, if passed, would have required most businesses wanting to contract with state government to open their books to determine if they ever profited from the slave trade. Doing so would not inhibit getting the contract, but not opening the books would.
That bill's sponsor, Rep. Larry Womble [D-Winston-Salem], promised to reintroduce it next year. He insisted the goal of his bill was not reparations, but better information about the potential companies the state would be doing business with.
But conservatives like John Carlisle, director of policy at the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), a nonpartisan foundation based in Falls Church, Va., saw it differently.
In an article titled "Slave Disclosure Bill Would Worsen Racial Tension," published by the conservative Carolina Journal Online, Carlisle warned, "In addition to stoking racial bitterness, the measure will likely spark a barrage of costly lawsuits and hurt North Carolina's ability to attract business."
Peter Flaherty, president of the NLPC, charged that the ultimate goal of [Womble's] legislation, "is to provide a massive payday for 35 million blacks across the nation."
"It's totally ridiculous to pay them," Flaherty is quoted as telling the Carolina Journal. "We are doing what we can to stop it."
The NAACP doesn't think so.
At its annual national conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin this week, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization announced that it will target major corporations with historical ties to slavery for reparations.
"We will be pursuing reparations from companies that have historical ties to slavery and engaging all parties to come to the table," Dennis C. Hayes, interim president/ CEO told reporters. "Many of the problems we have now including poverty, disparities in health care and incarcerations can be directly tied to slavery."
Hayes said the NAACP will lobby cities to adopt slavery information measures before doing business with new corporations.