June 10, 2005

Wachovia's Apology

Another great column from Jeff Jacoby:

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?"


Unbelievable. Slavery ended over one hundred and forty years ago. Why should I be required to pay reparations for something that I didn't do to people who have never been slaves. How is that fair?

Jeff continues:

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.

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