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Growing interest in a debt unpaid

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 2, 2002

Gerald Syrkett said he wanted to vent.

Syrkett is a thoughtful man who, over the years, has been a positive force in the Tampa Bay community. His latest contribution, a program that started with his idea of pairing men with boys to experience a trip to the barbershop, has become a growing mentoring program.

So when Syrkett calls to say he wants to vent, I let him.

He told me his parents were college-educated with advanced degrees. Their educations, however, didn't prevent them from paying all their lives on insurance policies that turned out to be virtually worthless.

My parents also owned such policies, which they paid for in installments every two weeks when the salesman made his rounds. Many of their friends and neighbors had the same policies, which often didn't cover the expense of their funerals. My father's insurance covered the expenses of his burial only because our family knew the funeral director and he adjusted the bill to match the insurance benefit.

Education level didn't matter. The insurance companies had two sets of insurance plans, one they offered black clients -- college-educated or illiterate -- and another they reserved for white customers.

White people were able to leave thousands of dollars to their heirs, Syrkett said. Black folks were often left with funeral expenses that exceeded the insurance benefits.

The effect on individual black policyholders was egregious, but what had Syrkett steaming was the cumulative effect over many years. The insurance companies, he said, directly contributed to widening the economic gap between black and white Americans. The income the companies received from black policyholders coupled with the low benefits paid out helped keep premiums lower for white policyholders. But the real divider was survivor benefits that enriched the survivors of white policyholders but left black survivors with the same -- or worse -- financial standing.

A Georgia insurance company just agreed to pay $55-million to black policyholders to whom it admitted charging higher premiums and paying lower benefits, saying it was once a common practice among many companies.

The company is paying reparations for its mistreatment of black customers.

Not long ago, reparations was a dirty word used in serious conversation only by the few diehard advocates who were convinced America needed to pay for slavery and its adverse fallout.

That viewpoint was considered radical and was rejected -- or just avoided -- by more middle-of-the-road thinkers (even civil rights leaders) who feared losing their credibility.

Some of us felt reparations were due but thought the logistics of determining who paid and to whom seemed too daunting an undertaking to expect governmental agencies to ever accomplish.

In recent years, that attitude has changed.

Respected scholars have given credence to the concept that the adverse effects of slavery -- before and after 1865 -- are compensable.

The call for it has picked up heat. Around the country, serious thinkers of all stripes are joining forces with scholars and advocates and assessing the damage and liability. Several federal lawsuits are pending.

In Tulsa, Okla., where a Rosewoodlike riot in the '20s wiped out a prosperous black community, a commission is studying the feasibility of reparations.

The old argument often foisted by unsympathetic white people, "I didn't own slaves," carries an even tinnier sound now.

In this country, practices and institutions that deprive one group of access to opportunity benefit others. Employment denied to black workers means more employment for whites. Property wrested out of the hands of black owners enriches the new owner.

The fact that there are no Americans around, 150 years later, who owned slaves is a moot issue. Slavery and its aftermath created a dual society that in measurable ways systematically deprived black Americans of opportunities and, in doing so, expanded opportunities for white Americans. Multiplied by the millions of lives whose earning power was affected, compounded by the centuries over which the influence was felt, slavery and its aftermath ran up a debt that would likely be written in trillions.

Most of it will likely go unpaid.

But there is a healing value in a spreading acknowledgement that the debt exists.

As those who profited from slavery and its aftermath of segregation and Jim Crow institutions receive their bills, perhaps a few of them will begin to see that ill-gotten gains are only temporary, even if temporary is a century or more.

When he finished, Syrkett thanked me for letting him vent. He said it made him feel better.

America, like Syrkett, is beginning to vent. In the end, it, too, will feel better.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail

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