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Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 2002 / 11 Tishrei , 5763

Jonathan Turley

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Reparations: A Scam Cloaked in Racial Pain | In the history of con games there have been some legendary flimflams, from the ancient Trojan horse to the modern Ponzi scheme. But nothing quite equals the current reparations movement.

Various civic and political leaders have recently used the promise of trillions of dollars in "slavery damages" to leverage political and financial gains.

Unlike the relatively harmless street con of a $5 gold watch, however, these leaders are fueling a racial divide with the allure of windfall awards that will never be realized. Last week, lawsuits were filed in California, New York, Illinois, Texas and Louisiana seeking reparations for slavery. With emotions rising over the issue, there has been reluctance to say the obvious about these lawsuits: As a legal matter, they are entirely without merit. Given the deep injury that many African Americans legitimately feel over slavery, coverage and commentary often have focused on the historical rather than the legal aspects of these filings to avoid insulting many citizens. This has led to a false impression of merit, which has increased the racial tension.

The lawsuits typify the dangers in using the law as a form of expression rather than true adjudication. Fundamental legal elements are treated as immaterial distractions. For example, there is the small matter of the statute of limitations: For claims like unjust enrichment, it is six years. That would have run out, for these cases, roughly 131 years ago The designated corporate defendants often seem equally random. One lawsuit named FleetBoston Financial Corp. as "unjustly enriched" by slave labor. The basis for this claim is that FleetBoston was created by an array of businesses, one of which, Providence Bank, was originally founded by a slave trader.

This is only slightly more compelling than using the popular "six degrees of separation" from actor Kevin Bacon as the basis of a lawsuit. Previous reparation lawsuits were given little credence by the courts. In 1995, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco tossed out as largely frivolous a $100-million reparations lawsuit against the U.S. government. But then these lawsuits are designed to vent rather than validate claims of injury.

The categorical rejection of these claims by courts would normally prove something of a marketing barrier, but in these cases it is used as evidence of a white-dominated legal system. This convenient argument has been made by reparations advocates like New York City Councilman Charles Barron. "Some days I get so frustrated I just want to go up to the closest white person and say, 'You can't understand this, it's a black thing,' and then slap him just for my mental health," Barron said.

This would appear to be a walking advertisement for analysis, not reparations.

Last month, reparations advocates held a rally under the remarkably revealing motto: "They Owe Us." "They" appear to be all white people. "Us" is supposedly every African American for whom these leaders now claim to speak. What is "owed" has been stated as high as $10 trillion.

Not surprisingly, the rally was filled with racial animus and epithets. The highlight of the rally was the keynote speaker, the virulently racist and anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan rejected mere financial settlements as a "jive token" and demanded that the government hand over millions of acres of land.

This vision of a Farrakhanland only typifies the level of delusion that has been unleashed. Of course, this outcome is less appealing to leaders like Jesse Jackson who want the trillions to be managed by organizations like his own, the final realization of the pot of gold at the end of his Rainbow Coalition.

None of this questions the lingering effects of slavery. Moreover, the law can be used to deal with direct injuries of discrimination. This was recently the case in 1999 when black farmers won a $2-billion payment from the federal government for discrimination by the Department of Agriculture.

The award of reparations for Japanese Americans and Jewish slave laborers from World War II--made to the direct victims of the abuse--does not support but rather refutes these claims. While leaders like Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo have encouraged African Americans to put aside this reparations fixation, an increasing number of politicians and organizations have succumbed to the lure of racial politics.

In failing to debunk this urban mythology, our political leaders are playing a dangerous and harmful game. When this Ponzi scheme collapses, we will be left with only racial animus as the only dividend of the Great Reparations Scam.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Turley is a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Jonathan Turley