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Confronting the crime of slavery in the U.S.

By Sharon Smith | April 5, 2002 | Page 7

IN 1865, the U.S. government promised every freed slave 40 acres of tillable land, known as the "40 Acres and a Mule Proclamation." Although the proclamation passed both houses of Congress, President Andrew Johnson vetoed it.

That was the last time the U.S. government gave any thought to compensating African Americans for 300 years of slavery. The reparations movement is now forcing the political establishment to reconsider.

Last week, a group of lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against the Aetna insurance company, FleetBoston bank, and the railroad giant CSX on behalf of all African American descendants of slaves. The lawsuit contends that the corporations "knowingly benefited from a system that enslaved, tortured, starved and exploited human beings."

Aetna, now one of the most profitable U.S. insurance firms, insured slave owners for the loss of slaves. Its policies made clear, however, that it would not pay the premium on slaves who were lynched, were worked to death or committed suicide.

CSX used slaves to lay railroads. John Brown, the founder of FleetBoston's corporate predecessor, Providence Bank, amassed his wealth as a slave trader.

"We want a change in America. We want full recognition and a remedy of how slavery stigmatized, raped, murdered and exploited millions of Africans through no fault of their own," explained Charles Ogletree of the Reparations Assessment Group, one of the groups spearheading the reparations movement.

Lawyers plan to file other lawsuits later this year, against other corporations, educational institutions and the U.S. government itself for perpetuating and profiting from the system of slavery. Tobacco companies used slaves to harvest crops, and mining companies used slave labor to process salt and coal. Ivy League universities such as Brown, Harvard and Yale (the alma mater of the Bushes, father and son) built their endowments using money from slavery profits.

Half of the workforce that the U.S. government used to build the White House and the U.S. Capitol were slaves. In 1863, a slave named Philip Reid supervised the construction of the "Statue of Freedom" perched on top of the Capitol dome.

If the reparations lawsuits accomplish nothing else, they will demonstrate the extent to which slavery laid the basis for the rise of American capitalism, and the degree to which racism is ingrained in the core institutions of U.S. society.

The corporate defendants say that they don't plan to pay a penny. "We do not believe a court would permit a lawsuit over events which, however regrettable, occurred hundreds of years ago," said an Aetna spokesperson.

But the reparations movement is meant to rectify not only racial injustices of the past, but those of the present. The disenfranchisement of thousands of Black Florida voters in the 2002 election was just one recent reminder that the institutions of racial discrimination and segregation have long outlived slavery.

In 2000, nearly 10 percent of Black men between 25 and 29 years old were in prison, compared with just 1.1 percent of whites. Last month, a Harvard School of Public Health study showed that Black Americans, as a group, receive lower-quality health care than whites, regardless of income.

In 1997, a Department of Agriculture lawsuit demonstrated that, over a period of decades, Black farmers lost their farms at a rate triple that of white farmers, due to discriminatory lending practices by banks.

In 1998, the median net worth of white households was $81,700, while that of African American households was just $10,000. As authors Meizhu Lui and Rose Brewer argue, "Fault lines laid long ago forged a vast and enduring wealth gap between white Americans and African Americans."

The lawsuit asks not for compensation for individual slave descendants, but that any reward be placed in a fund to improve social, health and education opportunities for Black Americans. The lawyers also call for strengthening affirmative action and other policies to redress discrimination.

The demand for reparations deserves the support of everyone opposed to racism--past and present.

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