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Lawsuits were recently filed in federal district courts in New York and New Jersey on behalf of named plaintiffs Deadria Farmer-Paellman and Richard E. Barber as representatives of slave descendants against corporations involved in slavery. The suits seek an accounting of slavery-related profits and damages based on unjust enrichment. It is hard to argue that profits derived from slavery were not unjustly earned, or that it is inappropriate to have these corporations share in repairing the broken lives of those who suffer most from slavery’s legacy. For example, who cares to argue that corporate profits derived from the use of Jewish slave labor during the Holocaust were not unjustly earned? I agree that no slave masters are alive to pay the debt of slavery in America. However, the government, as a body corporate that supported slavery and systematic discrimination, is still around. The many corporations that built fortunes through the slave trade are still around. These corporate bodies, although not slave masters per se, were perpetrators in crimes against humanity, and some portion of the wealth that makes up their bottom lines is the product of slave labor. Some argue that the legal case for reparations is barred by the statute of limitations and other procedural hurdles. But let’s take a new perspective on time. If all had been fair and equal at the end of slavery, if freedmen had enjoyed equal opportunity and equal protection of the law in the absence of discrimination, there would be a strong case that it is too late to seek reparations for slavery. Unfortunately, the history of the United States is not so rosy and provides a contrary story. We must ask, “When is it too late to redress a long-standing wrong that continues?” Until the civil rights revolution and affirmative action, only the most fortunate African-Americans had any semblance of a chance to share in the prosperity of this nation. Academic institutions and corporations opened the doors of opportunity to African-Americans around 1969. If we use that year as the trigger date for the statute of limitations, only 33 years have passed. Evidence of the nature of the true perpetrators, such as the corporations involved, surfaced only recently. Given the egregious impact of slavery and discrimination, the statute of limitations should, equitably, be tolled. CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY The World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, last year labeled slavery a crime against humanity. Poverty is defined by the United Nations Committee on Human Rights not only as a lack of physical resources, but as deprivation of economic, political and social rights. The message is clear: Slavery begat racism begat poverty and exclusion; reparations is the way to rectify these injustices. The United States vigorously resists the idea of reparations for slavery. That comes as no surprise. Slavery was protected by the U.S. Constitution, despite its obvious incompatibility with the Declaration of Independence. When slavery was formally eliminated after the Civil War with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, it was replaced with Black Codes, sharecropping, discrimination and oppression that included systematic failure of the government to recognize and protect the rights of African-Americans, even as newly freed slaves. Let’s not forget Plessy v. Ferguson, which condoned segregation. Congress failed to enact lynch laws despite the fact that more than 10,000 freedmen were lynched between 1865 and 1895. The federal government practiced systematic discrimination in the armed services, farm loans, home mortgages and many federal programs. Resistance to reparations is frequently based on standing issues: There are no slaves alive to compensate. At the same time, though, no one can reasonably argue that the impact of slavery is not being experienced by African-Americans throughout the country today. Slavery was doctrinally supported by racism, and the effects of that racism are felt in the lives of African-Americans without regard to their economic, social and political stature. Of course, the magnitude of the impact of slavery and its aftermath is significantly more pronounced in the lives of those people also caught in the web of poverty. Racism-induced poverty is not likely to disappear of its own accord. In the abstract, procedural defenses to reparations, such as standing and the statute of limitations, are flimsy at best. Given the magnitude of slavery and the impact it has had on the lives of African-Americans, procedural defenses are downright cowardly. Vincene Verdun is an associate professor of law at the Michael E. Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University in Columbus.

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