40 Acres and a Lawsuit

The legacy of slavery still weighs heavily on American society. Many black Americans have made great strides in education and economic status. But millions still lag way behind their white fellow citizens. Addressing that gap must be an ongoing national responsibility.

Should that responsibility include some form of reparations to African-Americans for injustices their ancestors suffered under slavery?

That question, long debated, moved center stage this week with the filing of lawsuits against a number of companies whose early fortunes can be tied to the exploitation of slaves (see story, page 2). These firms, including Aetna insurance and the CSX railroad, are being sued for an unspecified sum that would be paid into a fund to aid the descendants of slaves.

The legal path ahead for these suits is tortuous. Unlike reparations given Japanese-Americans interned in World War II, or victims of the Nazi Holocaust, compensation in this instance can't go to those who were directly affected. The last direct victims died decades ago. And the targeted companies, largely the creations of recent mergers, can argue that they have little if any connection to the firms of past centuries that insured human chattel or used slave labor to lay rails.

There's also the fact, tragic as it is, that the slave-related activities of those former companies were not illegal at the time.

Still, the lawyers bringing these actions say this is only the beginning, that dozens more lawsuits will be filed against businesses with roots in slavery. Clearly, more than the prospect of monetary awards is at work here. The movement to seek reparations for slavery has been percolating for years. Earlier efforts focused on getting the government to pay. The new focus on corporations is a refinement, with a somewhat better chance of winning public support, or at least educating Americans more about slavery's history and legacy.

Merely placing this issue before the public is a goal of the plaintiffs. A danger is that the suits may sidetrack other efforts to deal with the effects of racism. And the legal stretch may even erode support for social programs.

Facing past wrongs is as necessary as it is unpleasant. If the suits impel that, they may have value.

But removing the legacy of slavery, from all Americans, will require much more than dubious legal action.

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