As U.S. foreign relations remain uneasy in the face of war, U.S. domestic race relations seem to be just as rocky. At the end of February, black-American descendants of slavery filed a class-action lawsuit against approximately 1,000 corporations for contributing to slavery and therefore indirectly causing the current state of the black population – some of the corporations include JP Morgan Chase, FleetBoston and various tobacco, railroad and insurance companies.
The plaintiffs want reparations, but not in the traditional monetary form. No individual in the suit wants a check in his/her mailbox. Instead, they request that any money awarded be placed in a general fund to improve the current conditions that place blacks in the lowest percentile in almost every facet of everyday life. Along with the obvious legal consequences of such a lawsuit, the plaintiffs hope that the case will affirm corporate accountability for slavery and lead to an investigation of the specific financial aspects of slavery.
Filed appropriately at the end of Black History month and during the lawsuits against the University, this lawsuit has both legal and sociological significance. Legally, though ostensibly unrelated to the affirmative action lawsuits, a victory in this case will add weight to the as yet insubstantial “oppression claim” – the claim that affirmative action is necessary to counteract the legacy of slavery. If blacks can successfully indict corporations and garner funds, it will legally label them as an aggrieved segment of society, a politically useful tool.
Yet, the social psychological aspect of this lawsuit is much more intriguing and telling. On the surface, the lawsuit represents the residual anger about slavery and its repercussions. It is also the embodiment of the frustration felt by the community because the last antidote – affirmative action – to poverty’s poison is in jeopardy while no other solution is in sight.
The heart of the issue is a pervasive minority mindset that in the legends of American history never seems to die. This is not a weakness or fault but a virtue, the uniting of a population for solidarity, an earnest attempt to be heard in a time when voices are being silenced. It is a concept evident in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the slave riots of the nineteenth century, and in the writings of W.E.B. Dubois and other intellectuals. It is a rebellious zeal that has kept and will continue to keep the black community alive and growing.
Given the motivation behind the lawsuit, the inevitable question arises: Is this lawsuit justified? To answer this, we need to consider two points. First, consider the proposed goal of the lawsuit: the community fund. The fact that the plaintiffs do not want individual, monetary reparations but benefits for the entire black population indicates a higher goal. This makes the lawsuit not a selfish, money-grubbing ploy but a noble endeavor by a minority group trying to face the stagnation and malaise evident in its community.
Second, consider the legal history of reparations. In the past, blacks have targeted the federal government for reparations, a plot that was obviously flawed. With 35 million blacks in America, the issue of federal reparations is sticky to say the least. Yet, by targeting corporations and showing a close relationship between slavery and corporate financial benefit, the plaintiffs greatly increased their chances. In addition, looking at the Jewish population who suffered unfathomable atrocities during World War II, they have also been successful in gaining reparations. In 2000, the German government and many German companies laid out billions for Holocaust survivors. Granted, the German government is decidedly more liberal, but private companies gave money as well.
Are the companies indebted? This issue is the most controversial. However wronged the black community feels, however solid the case, it is evident that these companies are simply not the same as they were. During the 1970s, corporate witch trials headed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provided financial dividends for victims of discrimination. Many companies today give money to programs like INROADS which offer internships to minorities and have special minority recruitment programs like JP Morgan Chase’s Honors Program. It is possible, though not likely, that corporations are simply scapegoats in the black quest for justice.
Undoubtedly, blacks have a case here. Financially and legally it is relatively sound. Morally, it is a bit more tenuous. Struggling to be heard by a nation whose hearing is diminishing, the minority clamor for recognition is by no means frivolous.
Jean is an LSA freshman and a member of the Daily’s editorial board.