Generosity goes unnoticed in slavery reparations lawsuit

Aetna's generosity should be noted

April 20, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

THE VILLAIN Calvera said, "Generosity, that was my first mistake," as he peered ominously from beneath his mega-sombrero at the gringo gunman in the classic scene from the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven.

The testosterone is practically gushing off the screen as Calvera, played by a distinctly non-Hispanic Eli Wallach, continues to lecture the seven Anglos hired by hapless peasants to stop him.

"I leave these people a little extra," Calvera continued, "and then they hire these men to make trouble. Shows you, sooner or later you must answer for every good deed."

Honchos at Aetna Inc., the insurance company named in a recent lawsuit seeking reparations for slavery, must be remembering that quote right about now. Joining Aetna in being sued are FleetBoston Financial Group and the CSX railroad. Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a 36-year-old African-American law school grad, is the plaintiff in the suit filed last month, which seeks an unspecified amount of dollars.

Why have Aetna, FleetBoston and CSX been targeted? Listen to Farmer-Paellmann, in an interview from Sunday's St. Petersburg Times.

"These are corporations that benefited from stealing people, from stealing labor, from forced breeding, from torture, from committing numerous horrendous acts," Farmer-Paellmann said, "and there's no reason why they should be able to hold on to assets they acquired through such horrendous acts."

FleetBoston is on the list of reparations activists because it started out as Providence Bank, which was owned by slave trader and businessman John Brown. CSX is targeted because some railroad lines were built with slave labor. Aetna's sin was to write insurance policies that paid slave owners for the deaths of their slaves.

So what happens? Two years ago that body of African-Americans known as the Bust Whitey's Hump Brigade (BWHB) forced an apology out of Aetna executives, none of whom was alive during slavery. These deluded wusses probably thought they were off the hook, but those of us familiar with the BWHB knew the company hadn't heard the last of the matter.

Now the BWHB is calling Aetna to account for some insurance policies issued more than 135 years ago. How has Aetna responded?

With infuriating wussiness. The company has a statement on its Web site that's not exactly brimming over with the outrage Aetna officials should have.

"We do not believe a court would permit a lawsuit over events which -- however regrettable -- occurred hundreds of years ago. These issues in no way reflect Aetna today."

Absent from that statement is what Aetna bigwigs should tell Farmer-Paellmann and her lawyers: "Get a life!"

There is, however, some useful information in the Aetna press release. The company was founded in 1853. Chattel slavery ended -- supposedly -- in 1865. That means Aetna "profited" from slavery for only 12 years.

Aetna says the company insured the lives of slaves "for a few years" and that "there is no conclusive data on the total number of policies written by Aetna Life."

So the BWHB probably isn't clear on how much money Farmer-Paellmann should get from Aetna. Add that little tidbit to the fact that, in a court of law where evidence is examined scrupulously, Farmer-Paellmann's lawyers would have to prove that Aetna wrote policies, specifically, on the lives of her slave ancestors.

Finally, Aetna argues, in direct rebuttal of Farmer-Paellmann's allegation, that the company hasn't "[held] on to assets [it] acquired through such horrendous acts." The company says that for the past 20 years it has given more than $36.5 million to the African-American community.

Nearly $6 million went for health initiatives and another $12.5 million for education and leadership development. A little more than $2 million went for economic development, close to $7.4 million for community partnerships and almost $9 million for "minority-owned business initiatives."

Some of the beneficiaries of Aetna's largesse have been the National Medical Association, an organization of African-American doctors; the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund; the United Negro College Fund; and the 100 Black Men Intern Program. If Aetna owes any debts to black America, there are some who might suggest that they've already been paid.

Oh, there's one other thing. Aetna's work force is one-third "people of color," which probably impresses the BWHB not one iota. But you have to get the feeling that one Deadria Farmer-Paellmann won't be one of those minority workers anytime soon.

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