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Guest Column

Should companies in the United States compensate African Americans for the “unjust enrichment” the firms gained from slavery more than 100 years ago?

A lawsuit filed in New York on Tuesday seeks to have that question answered in the affirmative. Experts say the lawsuit, and similar claims soon to be filed, have little chance of success.

The experts are right about the legal merits. Too much time has passed. Statutes of limitations in most states lapsed long ago. No direct victim of slavery is alive today. The paper trail, such as exists, isn’t fully intact. Moreover, federal courts increasingly are shaded toward a conservative interpretation of individual and group rights.

Nevertheless, the lawsuit can have a useful role in the national debate about American slavery – a horribly dehumanizing institution sanctioned by the government for which the country has never officially apologized. It also creates an opportunity to clarify and illuminate the historical record, about which many people have considerable misconceptions.

The lawsuit was filed by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a researcher in New York City who returned to school for a law degree in order to learn more about the legal theory of reparations. Farmer-Paellmann also is the descendant of a South Carolina slave. Her lawsuit seeks unspecified compensation and names three defendants: Aetna Inc., the country’s largest insurance firm; Boston-based financial-services firm FleetBoston Financial Corp.; and railroad company CXS Corp. of Richmond, Va.

So far, Farmer-Paellmann has identified 60 companies that had ties to U.S. slavery. One firm, Aetna, apologized two years ago for insuring slaves, but it opposes reparations.

The lawsuit is the latest of several attempts by some black groups to win formal reconciliation for American slavery. The efforts went nowhere in the legislative and executive branches. Congress refused to authorize a study of the issue, and President Bush opposes reparations. Former President Clinton did offer an apology, however.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the issue now seems destined for a public airing that can contribute to a better understanding of slavery’s consequences.

During its recent transition from white-minority rule to black-majority government, South Africa used a truth commission to cleanse its wounds and establish an honest historical record.

The U.S. historical record of slavery is far from complete. Movies, docudramas, books and plays often present sanitized accounts of slavery. Scholars debate the impact and consequences of America’s slave period. Thus, the lawsuit opens a useful new chapter in the national debate.

The Miami Herald