'By any scam necessary'

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For better or worse, it seems the movement to extract reparations for slavery has entered the guerrilla stage. In other words, since it doesn’t look like the government is willing to pony up on back pay for all that involuntary labor — at least not anytime soon — some have decided to take matters into their own hands and illegally put some bucks in their own pockets. The question is whether these folks should be classified as heroic revolutionaries or vilified as con men and criminals.

Check out this Associated Press story:

“Hundreds of people who filed for a nonexistent black slavery credit on their federal income tax returns received the money they sought, costing the Treasury $30 million in improper payments, Treasury officials revealed at a Senate Finance Committee hearing last week.

“Last year, claims for the nonexistent credit totaled $2.7 billion, David C. Williams, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, told the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.”

Black slavery credit?

According to the rest of the story, a fair number of people were taken in by crooked tax preparers who convinced them that the federal government had agreed to pay black folks reparations in the form of a special tax rebate. These preparers promised to get the money.

What’s even stranger is that the government didn’t catch this rather glaring scheme until millions of dollars had already been paid out. Although an IRS press release was issued in January warning people against being taken in by the scam, the release conveniently neglected to mention that the IRS itself had already been suckered. Talk about being asleep at the switch.

Charles O. Rossotti, the commissioner of internal revenue, was quoted in the January release as saying, “Promoters are shamelessly preying upon people. These snake-oil salesmen build false hopes and charge people good money for bad advice on reparation refunds. In the end, the victims discover their refund claims are rejected, and their money and the promoters are long gone.”

According to Rossotti, the agency received about 80,000 false claims last year. The IRS said it received fewer than 14,000 such claims in 2000.

All of that is interesting, but the following, quoted from the Associated Press, closes in on the real story:

“The Justice Department won a conviction of one promoter of the bogus slavery credit, Vernon T. James of Carrolton, Tex., who was sentenced in January to more than six years in prison. It also filed lawsuits to stop two other promoters of the scheme: Andrew L. Wiley of Durant, Miss., who helped file 3,910 fraudulent returns seeking $168 million; and Robert L. Foster of Richmond, Va., who helped prepare $2 million in bogus claims, according to court papers.

“At least three of Mr. Wiley’s clients received the $43,209 they had sought, The Clarion-Ledger, of Jackson, reported. The $43,209 figure was cited in a 1993 Essence magazine article as the value that year of 40 acres and a mule, which a few freed slaves received at the end of the Civil War.”

The IRS is now leaning on folks who received the credits to give the money back.

Like I said in the beginning, it’s guerrilla tactics. The front door is locked so folks are going around the side. Granted it’s illegal, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including longtime reparations advocate Rep. John Conyers, have roundly denounced the maneuver. Still, I say somebody better pay attention to what’s really going on here. This is far from your basic tax-cheat scheme. There’s a message attached to this one.

I’ve always had somewhat mixed feelings about the reparations movement. It’s not that I disagree with the intent. For a crucial historical period, America’s thriving economy was built primarily on the backs of an unpaid work force, and even though slavery is now over and only their descendants remain, somebody ought to pay for what happened.

But it’s not that simple. The sheer number of issues that would need to be sorted out would tie the matter up in so many knots for so long on so many levels that I’m afraid the movement is doomed to eventually run out of steam. Once an agreement has been reached that black people are owed compensation for slavery, then we must calculate how much money is enough. Then we’ve got to decide where it’s going to come from. Then we’ve got to decide whether it’s better simply to pay all black folks individually a certain amount or whether the amounts should be commensurate with need. Should the cash be placed in a fund of some sort? If so, who would oversee and administer this fund?

And that’s just for starters.

Then there would be the matter of who should ultimately be allowed to oversee the operation. Can the federal government be trusted to fairly and impartially arrive at a just figure, devise a workable formula for distribution, then somehow see to it that all of this nation’s descendants of ex-slaves get paid? Since the overwhelming majority of Congress members are white males, I think it’s safe to say there might be somewhat of a problem as to how this whole thing would be perceived. In short, it seems to me slightly awkward putting the descendants of the slave owners in charge of making matters right with the descendants of the slaves. It’s kind of like going up to the big house and asking, “Well, boss, you gonna set us free yet?”

Right. So then do the guerrillas have the right idea? After all, since black people really were promised 40 acres and a mule — and then had that promise revoked — is it really wrong to cut through the red tape and just take what’s ours rather than hassle with the system?

But even if it’s justifiable, is it worth it?

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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