Along the Tracks

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Crimes of the past

An activist has initiated a lawsuit against Aetna, Fleet Bank and CSX Rail, demanding $1.4 trillion (not million, not billion, TRILLION) for activities of those corporations or their progenitors which capitalized off slavery in the United States. The lawsuit will most likely be dismissed, and should be, for the following reasons:
1. There are no claimants. People who have been injured physically or financially have the right of redress in the court. That can include not only the injured party, but also the family, business partners, etc. However, there are limitations. Descendants who have experienced no personal injury from the other party are simply not considered legitimate claimants. If I discover that a company once stole thousands of dollars from my long-deceased great-grandfather and was never held accountable by the courts, I could sue - we can all sue for anything - but the case would be dismissed unless I could show how that company’s theft injured me. That would require a real stretch, something a clever lawyer might wish to try, but which would be unlikely to gain any traction before a judge.
2. The corporate actions were legal at the time. It is a sad truth, but slavery was legal in the United States until after the ratification of the 13th Amendment on Dec. 6, 1865. Slaves were considered property, their production was therefore the property of their owners. As property, they could also be insured - one specific injury cited in the suit. All of this is disgusting and evil; yet, it was legal, and the courts are charged with interpreting and upholding the law. Therefore, a lawsuit would seem to be the wrong venue for redressing this grievance.
3. The corporations have long since changed their activities, their leadership and their ownership. This, in my opinion, is the weakest argument, but still holds some weight. Consider that, even if personal claims against the corporations were weak, a court might decide a punitive award was necessary to punish past transgressions. Yet, as noted, these companies have completely changed face in the past 150 years; indeed, CSX is a recently created entity which happens to hold assets once belonging to railroad companies of the 1850s. None are charged with continuing any of the past practices listed in the suit; none have the same corporate leadership (obviously); all are publicly traded and therefore have no continuity in primary ownership. How would the “offending parties” be chastised by a punitive award when they no longer exist?
The lawyers involved in this lawsuit understand and could explain all these legal arguments better than I. The success of the suit itself is not their goal. The purpose is really twofold - to raise the profile of the reparations movement itself and, with a little luck, to force a settlement by the named companies. Why would they settle? Bad publicity. “Supporter of slavery” is hardly a statement anyone doing business in America wants associated with their firm. Jesse Jackson has made a career out of accusing company after company of racism, then gladly collecting cash in exchange for shutting up. This lawsuit opens up a whole new realm of potential extortion - a model company in terms of integration and fair play can now be put squarely in the crosshairs if it, any of its subsidiaries or any of the companies whose assets it purchased at any time made money while slavery was legal.
There are still real problems with race relations and discrimination today, problems which require a variety of solutions, including determined law enforcement, enlightened incentive approaches and, where need arises, redress in civil courts. No one needs to look back 150 years to find evil lurking; it can still be found right here in 2002. But evil now is on the defensive, being beaten back, overcome and, slowly but surely, eliminated. Unfortunately, rather than continuing the lower profile struggle against the remnants of racism today, a few choose to seek greater publicity and profit by punishing those who are associated in name only with the evils which once occurred in our country. Such tactics hinder progress and healing and, ultimately, the success of the very group they are intended to help.

As for the point, often stated, that America has never paid for the sin of slavery: America has paid dearly; 620,000 died in the Civil War, ending involuntary servitude.

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