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JEFF JACOBY

The slavery shakedown

AS SOON as he learned the ugly truth, the chairman of financial-services giant Wachovia Corp. issued a remorseful nostra culpa. ''We are deeply saddened by these findings," Ken Thompson said last week. ''I apologize to all Americans, and especially to African-Americans." Wachovia acknowledged that it ''cannot change the past or atone for the harm that was done." But it promised to make amends by subsidizing the work of organizations involved in ''furthering awareness and education of African-American history."

Clearly Wachovia committed some shameful racial crime. What could it have been? Did the nation's fourth-largest bank holding company rob its black depositors of their savings? Charge exorbitant interest rates on loans to black customers? Segregate its branches?

Worse: It owned slaves.

Well, not exactly. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, and Wachovia wasn't founded until 1879. The slaves for which Thompson was so apologetic were owned decades before the Civil War, when slavery was still lawful throughout the South. They were owned not by Wachovia but by the Bank of Charleston and the Georgia Railroad and Banking Co. -- two of the approximately 400 financial institutions dating back to 1781 that over the centuries merged with or were acquired by other institutions that eventually became part of the conglomerate known today as Wachovia.

In other words, Thompson's apology was for something Wachovia didn't do, in an era when it didn't exist, under laws it didn't break. And as an act of contrition for this wrong it never committed, it can now expect to pay millions of dollars to activists for a wrong they never suffered.

What is going on here?

Underlying Wachovia's conduct is a Chicago ordinance passed in 2002, which requires every company doing business with the city to investigate and disclose any historical ties it may have had to slavery. (Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia have enacted similar ordinances.) Wachovia was obliged to compile such a report because it is involved in a project with Chicago's Housing Authority.

Ordinances like Chicago's are the cutting edge of the slavery-reparations movement, which insists that black Americans today are owed billions of dollars in compensation for the slavery of centuries past. ''It will help demonstrate how much of the nation's wealth was created by the sweat and blood of slavery," Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley said when the ordinance was adopted. ''We're paying everybody around the world. Why can't we pay our own citizens?"

For a host of reasons, reparations are a terrible idea -- unjust, illogical, and dangerous. Living white Americans bear no culpability for slavery, and living black Americans never suffered from it. It would be unthinkable to make individuals responsible for the wrongdoing of their distant ancestors, or to require them to enrich the great-great-great grandchildren of the victims. The overwhelming majority of nonblack Americans have no family connection to slavery in any case -- most of us are descended from the millions of immigrants who came to this country after the Civil War.

But reparations advocates aren't interested in abstract arguments about justice and history; they are interested in extracting money from deep-pocketed corporations. Forcing firms to unearth ancient connections to slavery is one means to that end. Filing embarrassing lawsuits -- and then inviting settlement offers -- is another.

''Forcing Wachovia to ransack old records for links to slavery is nothing but a prelude to a shakedown," warns Peter Flaherty, president of the National Legal and Policy Center, which has published a detailed critique of the reparations campaign. ''By trying to appease these hustlers, Wachovia only encourages greater demands."

If Thompson thought he would put the slavery issue to rest by apologizing abjectly and promising to put even more money into ''diversity" and ''organizations that support African-Americans," he was mistaken. No sooner had he issued his statement than it was dismissed as insufficient. ''Wachovia can and must do more," declared the head of one advocacy group in the Raleigh News & Observer. ''It . . . must reinvest in the communities and the people who have been wronged." Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, a key reparations strategist, warned Wachovia that if it doesn't ''provide comfort to the descendants of slaves," this issue ''will haunt them for a long time."

America long ago paid the price for slavery: a horrific Civil War that killed 620,000 soldiers, more than half of them from the North. It is as vile to insist that white Americans today owe a debt for slavery as it would be to insist that black Americans owe a debt for freedom. What the reparations extremists are demanding would make a mockery of historical truth and inflame racial strife. Their cynicism is toxic, and corporate America had better find the courage to say so.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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