Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2001 / 25 Shevat 5762

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

$nookering the reparations crowd -- PSSST! Hey, brotherman, sisterwoman! Have you put in your application for slavery reparations yet?

Just kidding. Contrary to whatever rumors you may have heard, the federal government is not paying reparations for slavery.

And, by every conceivable indication, it never will, except in some people's dreams.

Unfortunately, thousands of African Americans have been suckered out of their money by scams promising tax credits or tax refunds based on slavery reparations that don't exist.

The ripoff, which cynically tends to target churchgoers and senior citizens, has become so widespread that the Internal Revenue Service has posted a notice on its Web site ( warning taxpayers not to fall victim.

Among recent prosecutions, a Sherman, Texas, man was sentenced last month to 78 months in prison for preparing 10 fictitious federal income tax returns, each claiming a $40,000 credit for a "black tax investment."

A Florida tax preparer was shut down and her assets frozen after she made a bogus offer to secure tax credits for blacks in exchange for a $100 money order.

A Virginia tax accountant was sent to prison in 1999 on 22 counts of filing false returns for clients, some of whom he claimed were owed a "black tax credit" as a reparation for slavery.

Yet, the scam has only grown since the mid-1990s to almost 80,000 reparations claims filed with the IRS last year, spokesmen say. That's a big increase from about 14,000 claims a year early.

Filers sought more than $2 billion last year in compensation they're not going to get. Instead, they'll have to pay the back taxes and possible penalties when the scheme is busted. If federal authorities believe you deliberately tried to deceive the government, you can be prosecuted.

As a descendant of African-American slaves, I find it sad that some people are celebrating Black History Month by fleecing black people, especially when the fleecers also happen to be black.

Yet, as a former police reporter, I also find the scheme sadly unsurprising. The reparations scammers are doing what con artists always do. They're taking advantage of a basic human desire to get something which has not been earned -- at least not by anyone now living.

Most of us black folks feel we are owed something for what slavery and subsequent discrimination took from our ancestors. But generations after slavery, it's impossible, as a political and practical matter, to put a cash value on our feelings, especially when this arouses even more outraged feelings among those who don't share our feelings.

That's why America has no legal history of paying reparations to anyone but the original victims of an offense. In this way, surviving Japanese-Americans who were sent to detention camps during World War II received a formal apology and a token $20,000 each in the 1980s.

More recently, Tulsa, Okla., officials announced a new fund in January to pay $5,000 to each of 138 still-living black survivors of that city's 1921 race riot. Local ministers started a second fund with a $20,000 donation. Neither fund would use tax money.

Freed slaves received nothing more than an attempt by Gen. William T. Sherman and others to give some of them the proverbial "40 acres and a mule" after the Civil War, an effort that President Andrew Johnson, a sympathizer with the South, repeatedly vetoed.

Nevertheless, the reparations movement has found new life in recent years, but little traction. Even during the Clinton years, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., made virtually no progress in his crusade since 1989 to create a commission to study the possibility of reparations.

Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica, had a briskly-selling book calling for reparations in 2000, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks." The following year, so did conservative California activist David Horowitz. His book, "Uncivil Wars," recounted his campaign to place ads that called reparations "racist" in college newspapers.

With all the ensuing publicity, it's no wonder some people who don't follow the news very closely think they may be a winner in some sort of reparations sweepstakes.

Excitement was kindled further by Johnnie Cochran's announcement that he and other prominent black lawyers were planning to sue Uncle Sam for reparations. Surely if anyone could get Ol' Massah to cough up our 40 acres and a mule, Cochran could.

But, sorry, folks. Like my daddy used to say, when somebody offers you something for nothing, that's probably what you're going to get. Nothing.

Not even the mule.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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