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White people are supposed to tip-toe around the perimeter of any discussion of race in America. What do we know, we privileged beneficiaries of the plantation master’s whip? We haven’t suffered the indignities of racism. We take front seats on the bus for granted. So goes the mantra of those for whom being sensitive about the obvious has become a livelihood. It’s time to take the idea of equality seriously and, well, let me throw caution to the wind, call a spade a spade: The lawsuit filed in New York the other day seeking reparations for slavery is pure hooey. Any judge not assessing sanctions for the filing of frivolous litigation should be ashamed. A spade a spade? Am I a crypto-racist? I blanched when I wrote that line. I was going to pull it. But why? Because it might smack of a double entendre in a discussion about race? I won’t let my existential pocket be picked so easily. The suit is against the Aetna insurance company, FleetBoston financial services group and railroad giant CSX. The claim? The firms benefited from slavery, a practice that ended in this country more than 135 years ago. So much for laches, the statute of limitations and all the other legal devices that assure that disputes are resolved in a timely manner. No wonder the world laughs at our love of litigation. There is no excusing racism, and one can reject the reparations claim without being a racist. Slavery was wrong. Jim Crow was wrong. Drawing invidious distinctions based on race is wrong. All these have become truisms of informed American opinion. Thus, the work of a civil rights pioneer such as Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center is to be applauded. When they strike at the Ku Klux Klan and its retrograde vision of America, they help bury the remnants of a lost world. The struggle against racism is worth waging. But we don’t need to wage it at the cost of being hoodwinked. The color line is a real and abiding part of American life and culture. It fosters odd hypocrisy. Randall Kennedy of the Harvard Law School recently wrote a perceptive little book entitled “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” (Pantheon, 2002). An explosive word arising from an explosive and destructive past. It is a prism through which we see the tensions in our culture. A person of color can use it affectionately; a white person using it may be sued, lose her job or otherwise suffer the scorn of the politically correct. We make the world in which we live with the choices we make each day. Those filing the reparations suit in New York have chosen to keep a foot in the distant past. They seek to reawaken and keep alive the trauma of slavery because it serves their present day interests. In sum, they seek benefit by evoking racism’s invidious and tragic past. Or, to change the metaphor, they now seek to benefit by playing the race card. I am not anteing up. Neither should our courts. Reparations for the descendants of slavery? We are still paying. The color line divides and confuses. We stumble to avoid the ethnic and racial terror ripping so many nations apart. But using the courts in this effort is just another example of Jim Crow’s legacy. Norm Pattis is a name partner at New Haven, Conn.’s Williams and Pattis.

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