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"The Big Payback"

Should corporations pay reparations too?

Ellen Rolfes Feb 18, 2023
Heard on:
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This week, we’re answering a question we received from Econ Extra Credit subscriber Jim T.: 

“Is there any effort or talk of having individuals and corporations that benefited from this labor to contribute to reparation funding?

I’m sure there are descendants, individuals and corporations that benefited from slave labor and through the generations have been able to grow their wealth.”

This month’s film, “The Big Payback,” depicts the efforts of Evanston, Illinois, to distribute reparations to its Black residents for past discrimination and the lingering effects of slavery. But Jim rightly points out that some individuals and companies had more direct, explicit ties to the slave trade and the wealth it generated. Some of those companies still exist today and reparation advocates have tried to hold them accountable. 

In the early 2000s, law professor and activist Deadria Farmer-Paellmann worked to get corporations to disclose and apologize for their involvement in slavery. She targeted insurance companies that had written life insurance policies for enslaved Africans, a practice that made buying captive people a “safe” investment. She also worked with city officials and state lawmakers to pass disclosure laws requiring insurance companies to report their involvement in antebellum slavery, including in Maryland, California, Illinois and Iowa. 

Farmer-Paellmann then tried to hold some companies financially accountable, filing a class-action lawsuit against bank FleetBoston, insurance company Aetna and railroad CSX. The lawsuit charged that the companies conspired with slave traders and other financial institutions “to commit and/or knowingly facilitate crimes against humanity, and to further illicitly profit from slave labor.” The case was dismissed in 2004, with the judge saying the plaintiffs had no clear link to the companies they were targeting. 

At the time of the ruling, Chicago Tribune editorial board member Clarence Page wrote about the challenges of using the courts — in the U.S. and elsewhere — to seek damages for a class of historical victims.  

“Yes, some Jews won compensation for the Holocaust and some Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II,” Page wrote. “[But] both cases were won in the court of public opinion, not courts of law. And the compensation was limited to the actual victims, not their descendants.”

However, some companies and organizations have acted on their own to make amends.

JPMorgan Chase apologized in 2005 for two of its subsidiaries’ involvement in the slave trade. Parts of its business in Louisiana accepted 13,000 enslaved people as collateral on loans made to plantation owners, and it ultimately took ownership of about 1,300 people. Chase also funded a $5 million college scholarship program for Black students in the state.

Just this month, the Church of England announced a 100 million pound reparations fund after it discovered that it had made about 443 million pounds (adjusted for inflation) through a fund that had invested in the South Sea Co. in the 1700s. The fund also received donations from wealthy slave owners at the time. 

And more universities are confronting their histories of slavery, including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Georgetown and the University of Virginia. 

Georgetown created a reconciliation fund last year that would provide $400,000 annually from donations to benefit descendant communities and offered preferential admissions to descendants of the Jesuit-owned slaves that the university sold in 1838.  

But many reparations advocates oppose the idea that organizations should cut checks, for fear that it would undermine national efforts.  “My position is: Take nothing if you’re not going to get what you deserve,” reparations expert and Duke University professor William Darity said. He has estimated national reparations would cost $350,000 per Black recipient, or $14 trillion in total.

Have you watched the film yet?

“The Big Payback” is available to stream for free on PBS.

Check out all our past selected films on our website.

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