Mister Pterodactyl
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Lots of discussion over at Amanda’s regarding this: Descendants of slaves filed a $1 billion lawsuit Monday against U.S. and British corporations [including Lloyd's of London, FleetBoston and R.J. Reynolds], accusing them of profiting by committing genocide against their ancestors. I’ve considered this issue before, and the question I always get stuck on is: what reparations? What would be enough?

Reparations have two uses. One, they’re punitive, giving pain to the offender in proportion (theoretically) to the pain caused. Two, they’re ameliorative, having an effect counter to the offense in order to remove ongoing damage to the victim. Punitive reparations seem out of place; the notion that whites in this country continue to benefit from a competitive advantage, even today, is plausible to me, but the fact that no now-living person is directly culpable for the crime makes ‘punishment’ irrelevant. Ameliorative reparations are also problematic. Affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws fall into this category, but it is difficult to tell how effective they are. The question is: what other measures could be taken that have a realistic chance of improving the lot of underprivileged minorities?

If you accept that American blacks are still suffering the effects of slavery (and subsequent racism), it’s clear that monetary reparations will not suffice. There is no (realistic) amount of money that could be paid that would offset the damage incurred. This lawsuit, therefore, has other aims. It is intended for one of three possible reasons: it may be a punitive measure against companies that gained past profits from slavery, or it may be a ruse to bring attention to the issue. More likely, though, is that it’s a plea for a collective apology. There is, again, no amount of money that can settle the bill; the payment of reparations could however represent an admission of guilt in the matter. Symbolic, true, but as it’s unlikely that the plaintiffs expect to actually heal the rift, I believe this is their real goal.

Good idea? Not sure. Can’t wait to see how it turns out.

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