Is the City Council trying to kill off New York’s economy once and for all? It sure looks that way. At a time when New York’s businesses face a crippling 18 percent property tax hike, when 9/11 continues to drag down local investment, and when the threat of terrorism hangs darkly over the city, a quarter of the council, with more votes to come, has decided that now is the perfect moment to subject Gotham’s companies to the slavery reparations racket.
Reparations rackets can be crafted many different ways. The council’s version is particularly ludicrous. Currently, any business that provides the city with a significant quantity of goods or services must disclose its recent financial history and any crimes its officers may have committed previously. Such information allows the city to determine whether the firm is a “responsible bidder” with the financial capacity to fulfill its contract and the business integrity to justify the award of public dollars.
The reparations racketeers want to amend the city’s contracting law to require any company doing business with the city to document, as part of its showing of “business integrity,” whether it had any engagement with or ever profited from slavery.
Suddenly, the council is developing an epochal sense of time and responsibility in determining “business integrity.” At present, the city judges a firm’s financial and ethical fitness at most over the last decade, not by leapfrogging two centuries into the past. Has your firm been penalized for delivering substandard goods or for falsifying payrolls? Have its owners been convicted for felony or mob connections? Did it fall into bankruptcy due to incompetence? The city says: “Let bygones be bygones.” As long as the infractions occurred more than ten years ago (in some case, less), the contracting office doesn’t want to know about them.
But . . . let’s say that your firm, or more likely its corporate great-great-grandparent, sold some machinery for use on Virginia plantations in 1805. Under the bill’s sloppy and overly broad language, this could conceivably be highly relevant to whether you are a responsible bidder for city contracts today. Never mind that even if your business is run entirely by spry octogenarians, they would have been born nearly 50 years after the federal government abolished slavery and would likely not have begun their business careers until 70 years after slavery ended. Anyone in your firm’s corporate ancestry who was alive at the end of the Civil War has probably been dead for nearly a century.
In other words, no one in business today has any possible responsibility for business decisions made at least 150 years ago, including any that directly or indirectly presupposed the existence of slavery. No one in business today ever had the opportunity to stop commerce with slaveholders, because—City Council members please take note!—slavery no longer exists (except in places like the Sudan, but New York reparations racketeers don’t care about Sudanese contractors). Even if a business’s corporate ancestors built the ships that carried slaves, none of its present leaders could have demonstrated “business integrity” by protesting that then-legal practice, because they wouldn’t have been born.
These are obvious truths, but the obvious has totally disappeared for the reparations racketeers. How should the city’s contracting office use the information about a firm’s ancient slavery profits or “engagement” with slavery? The council isn’t saying. The slavery bill’s sponsors generously concede that “past links to slavery” should not in themselves “serve as a litmus test to determine [business] responsibility.” But, they add coyly, such information should be “considered in the context of a company’s full record when making that determination.” The racketeers are too pusillanimous to state the absurd implication of their bill: that a company’s lawful engagement with slavery over 200 years ago shows bad business integrity of the owners today.
Here’s what the bill really is—a Christmas present to Johnnie Cochran, Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, and the billionaire tort lawyers who are now playing the reparations racket for all it is worth. Cochran, Ogletree, and Holocaust reparations lawyer Michael Hausfeld plan to file billions of dollars worth of lawsuits against corporations and governments for their alleged involvement in slavery. The City Council, in an effusion of holiday spirit, wants to make businesses provide Cochran and Ogletree with the historical research that the lawyers will then use to sue them. An ingenious structure, and quite a timely one. Last March, tort lawyers filed a reparations suit in Brooklyn against FleetBoston, Aetna, and CSX, aimed at what the attorneys claim is $1.4 trillion in present profits from slave labor. The suit also named 100 “corporate (John) Does”—actual businesses to be filled in at a later date. And who might those corporations be? The disclosure provision in the City Council’s reparations bill will smoke them out. At the time the Brooklyn suit was filed, Councilman Charles Barron, one of the bill’s 13 co-sponsors, warned: “Somebody has to pay.” Barron and his colleagues are now trying to make good on that threat.
How many businesses will want to spend money making their own nooses? Insurers in California had to hire costly teams of historians and lawyers to pore through old business records after the state required documentation of any slave policies their predecessors may have issued. The New York bill is far broader, demanding certification of the “nature and extent of [a contractor’s] engagement and profiting . . . from [sic] the trade or use of slaves.” Given the reparations advocates’ claim that every living white American continues to profit from slavery, there is not a company today that would not fall under the council’s bill.
Many of New York’s contractors will decide that the city’s business is hardly worth the risk of hanging up a red flag saying: “Sue me!” With less competition for the provision of goods and services, the city’s contracting costs will jump, exacerbating the existing budget crisis.
But the council can’t be bothered with such trivial matters as ensuring efficient and competitive services in a time of straitened resources. It’s far more satisfying to play symbolic race politics. Nothing in this bill will help any black resident in New York; in fact, the bill will set children back by perpetuating the lie that black progress depends upon white concessions.
Slavery and segregation were brutal betrayals of America’s founding principles, but the country has long since acknowledged and tried to pay for its original sin. Instead of making the city’s businesses liable for moral transgressions they did not commit, the council should send the message to the city’s students that school matters, that learning and self-discipline are the path to success, and that America is full of opportunities to anyone with the skills and drive to work.