Reparations Suit Leaves Opening

BY Salim Muwakkil

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It’s safe to say that the issue of reparations has arrived. And that’s a good thing.

Chicago has become the de facto center of the slavery reparations movement. Alderman Dorothy Tillman organized the first national reparations conference in 2001 and was the prime mover of a city ordinance that supports congressional hearings on reparations. Tillman later successfully lobbied the City Council to pass the Slave Era Disclosure Act, an ordinance that requires companies doing business with the city to reveal connections to slavery. Chicago was the first large city to pass such legislation.

The city also is home base to Conrad Worrill, chair of the National Black United Front and one of the nation’s leading reparations advocates. Worrill convened a host of conferences and symposia related to the issue of reparations and organized a national reparations march in 2002.

There was a time, not long ago, when the issue of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow apartheid was barely broached in polite company. Even civil rights activists found the subject too incendiary. The quest for reparations was pursued primarily by fringe Black Nationalist groups and was considered a distant issue for the average African American. In fact, reparations advocates often were ridiculed for pushing what was considered an implausible scheme.

In November 1999, a Washington Post story on the subject started like this: “The subject is scalding hot, untouchable as public policy. Even the brave run from it.”

Times sure have changed.

Chicago may be leading the pack, but pro-reparations resolutions have passed in city council chambers across the country, including Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif. Most of these resolutions urge support for a bill annually introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) that seeks “to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery … and economic discrimination against African-Americans … to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”

Last month, two Chicago courtrooms served as venues for debating such remedies. In January, a class-action suit was filed seeking reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans from 71 defendants, including banks and tobacco and cotton firms, alleging they did not comply with Chicago’s Slave Era Disclosure Act. The suit was filed by Bob Brown, a longtime activist and co-director of a group called Pan-African Roots, and does not seek financial damages. Rather, it calls for defendants to release files and records to account for all profits accrued from slavery. Later that month, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Norgle Sr. also dismissed a class-action reparations suit alleging that companies like the Lehman Brothers brokerage firm, Aetna Insurance, FleetBoston Financial Corp. and R. J. Reynolds Tobacco were “unjustly enriched” by slavery.

Other reparations lawsuits filed around the country were consolidated in the case before Norgle, and his decision dismisses their suits as well.

However, the judge ruled “without prejudice,” leaving the door open for further litigation. There is little doubt such litigation will come. A team of lawyers dubbed the Reparations Assessment Group—an association of legal heavyweights including Harvard’s Charles Ogletree and Johnnie Cochran—is reportedly planning a high-powered legal action beyond the strategy of class-action suits, and members of Harvard’s highly regarded and well connected “dream team” of black public intellectuals are mobilizing their talents to force a national discussion on the issue.

It’s safe to say that the issue of reparations has arrived. And that’s a good thing. Our slavery-tainted past prevents us from coming to grips with our racially divided present. How else can we explain our nation’s wide racial disparities without factoring in the legacy of slavery? The reparations idea provides a conceptual framework for understanding the crippling affects of that legacy and suggests possible remedies.

Norgle argued in his ruling: “The injury alleged cannot be ‘conjectural or hypothetical.’ While most would like to assume that they will be beneficiaries to their ancestor’s wealth upon their demise, this is a mere assumption.”

By reducing racial disparities to an “assumption,” Norgle adheres to a long tradition. But few social scientists would deny that 14 generations of slavery and another century of apartheid were transferred through the generations in inferior social status and poor quality of such things as employment, education and healthcare.

If Americans remain ignorant of slavery’s crippling social and economic legacy and its cultural implications, they are unlikely to ever get at the root of those inequities. If nothing else, the reparations debate will help alleviate that ignorance.

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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.

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