Now They're Sorry

Wachovia Corp., the biggest bank in these parts (the Carolinas) and one of the biggest in the nation after a merger/acquisition spree in the past few years, just apologized for its involvement in slavery.

It wasn't Wachovia itself, which didn't exist as such in the antebellum era, but rather two predecessor companies, the Georgia Railroad and Banking Co. and the Bank of Charleston, that profited directly and indirectly from the slave trade. As you might expect of two banks in the antebellum South, they were mixed up in all sorts of business dealings involving slavery, in addition to owning slaves themselves (as did individual founders and board members).

Wachovia came clean on its sordid past in an exhaustive 100-page report because the city of Chicago has an ordinance requiring that firms doing business with the city disclose all past connections to slavery.

It seems this is going around; many towns and cities around the country now require similar disclosures, and at least one other major bank, the Bank of America, is compiling its own encyclopedia of historical wrongdoing. A Philadelphia councilwoman who authored slavery-disclosure legislation for that city paints it as a kind of "truth and reconciliation" alternative to reparations: "Since reparations may never be possible, there's much to be said for companies to acknowledge that they made profits from slavery."

But, according to the Charlotte Observer,
Critics charge that reparations remain the ultimate goal. They say proponents are using the law to force companies to provide information that can form the basis for subsequent litigation.

"These disclosure initiatives are the prelude to a shakedown," said Peter Flaherty of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Virginia advocacy group that opposes the laws.
To which the proper response might be something like, "And your point is...?" After all, apologies are well and good, but real Americans (or anybody, for that matter) would rather have the cash.

One striking element of this story is how it keeps coming back to capitalism's cannibalistic lineages: few current firms dabbled in slavery themselves, but many have at one time or another swallowed older companies that had swallowed still older companies that may have held slaves or owned slave ships or accepted slaves as collateral or whatever. Slavery is indelibly imprinted on the DNA of western capital, which tells you something about the historical processes that led to the hegemony of the U.S. and western Europe.

About reparations: aside from probably intractable difficulties arising from the 140 years that have passed since slavery's abolition in the U.S., reparations for slavery are, politically speaking, beyond any reasonable possibility (other than, perhaps, token gestures and apologies). But what about the long post-slavery era of oppression under Jim Crow? That happened within living memory, and certainly involved economic exploitation along with infringement of political rights. The moment for slave reparations may have passed when Reconstruction died; but we're still barely 40 years past the Civil Rights Act, 50 years past Brown v. Board of Education. There's plenty of ongoing, present-day economic hardship, among communities and individuals, that can be traced directly, unproblematically, and (pretty much) uncontroversially, to legal segregation of all sorts. But I suppose reparations for Jim Crow would be tantamount to reviving the Great Society (itself a sort of social reparations project), which ain't happening anytime soon.