Should corporations be held accountable for slavery?

For companies that want to do business with the city of Chicago, winning the bid isn't the only hurdle. They also have to look deep into their past and reveal if they or their predecessor companies had any ties to slavery.

The city council set that condition in 2002, after Alderman Dorothy Tillman held hearings for local African-Americans to tell of slavery's impact on their families. California passed a similar law in 2000, more narrowly focused on insurance companies that protected the value of enslaved Africans as property.

Bringing to light the economic legacy of slavery is the primary goal, say supporters of the laws. But there's no denying a connection to the reparations movement. Plaintiffs in a current lawsuit argue that nearly 20 companies - in industries ranging from insurance to tobacco - should pay into a trust fund to improve the economic status of the black community. Although the plaintiffs were dealt a setback Monday, when a federal judge in Chicago dismissed the suit, they still have an opportunity to amend their complaint or appeal his decision.

A number of city and state lawmakers have eyed Chicago and California as models, but if these local ordinances catch on, it's difficult to predict what broader effects they'll have.

"It forces Americans to [think about] the extent to which corporations ought to be held responsible for slavery," says Steven Scalet, a professor of philosophy and economics at Binghamton University, part of New York's state university system. "In the best-case scenario, it will create a healthy national debate. Another scenario, however, is that [the ordinances] just heighten antagonisms."

Many Americans believe it's absurd to hold modern businesses accountable for practices that took place more than a century ago and were sanctioned by the government.

Even if companies have historical records stretching back that far - which they haven't been legally required to keep - their main responsibility is to current employees and investors, says William Carney, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

"If I'm a stockholder and the company decides to give away some of my money [for reparations], I may not be very pleased ... because I don't feel any personal responsibility for [slavery]; my ancestors were still in Ireland," he says.

But it's difficult to have a debate about whether reparations are justified if the public can't see how much some groups profited from slavery and others were harmed by it, says Tom Hayden, a longtime civil rights activist and former California senator.

Mr. Hayden originally pushed for survivors of the Holocaust and Japanese internment camps to be able to sue for reparations. He expanded his efforts to include the slavery issue after hearing about an African-American researcher who asked Aetna to disclose its slavery insurance policies. In early 2000, Aetna not only did so, but also issued an apology. Later that year, the law Hayden sponsored enabled California to publish the names of more than 600 slaves and 400 owners from the records of seven insurance companies.

Chicago hasn't yet seen such concrete results. Out of thousands of companies that have turned in affidavits, only one, Lehman Brothers, has acknowledged any record of a slave. Martha (no last name was recorded) served as a domestic in the home of the founding brothers. (The company contends the business itself had no ties to slavery; the reparations lawsuit disputes that.)

Companies facing local disclosure laws generally believe that if they don't make a big deal out of it, the issue will fade away, according to a lawyer on the corporate side of the reparations case who asked not to be named. Unlike the movement to get companies to divest from apartheid South Africa, the slavery issue, he says, resonates less with the public because it doesn't touch on current policies.

Many people also believe the United States government has done enough to help African-Americans collectively. But reparations advocates argue that in some parts of the country, slavery continued well into the 20th century, and freed slaves and their families never received the promised "40 acres and a mule." Since other groups, such as Japanese-Americans, have received reparations, they say African-Americans should, too.

If the lawsuit approach seems too confrontational, it's only because negotiations with companies and longstanding efforts to have Congress study the reparations issue have gone nowhere, says Diane Sammons, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers with the New Jersey firm of Nagel Rice & Mazie.

Ultimately, both the lawsuit and local ordinances aim to create enough pressure for a political solution.

"To us, reparations is the signature issue for the 21st century," says Paul Washington, chief of staff for New York City Councilman Charles Barron, whose resolution in support of the corporate lawsuit is stuck in committee. "It was the African slaves that leveled the land, that built the infrastructure of New York City, and this resolution highlights [their] contributions."

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