Skip to comments.Making firms pay for slavery a dirty business
Posted on 02/02/2003 7:04:26 AM PST by SJackson
There is a joy in factories, in things being made, at least for those of us who don't have to spend our days there, but can merely visit. With this in mind, a few years back, I cooked up a series, "Made in Chicago,'' for the sole purpose of having a reason to hang around factories, watching stuff being manufactured. One of the highlights was Strombecker Corp., an old-line toy company, all oily tools, hot metal and steaming molds, turning out cap guns, paddle balls and bubble fluid.
I was sitting with its president and I asked a standard question. How, I said, did the toy company start? He said something that floored me: They began in 1876 as the National Laundry Journal.
The journey from a magazine for 19th century laundries to a company making Tootsietoy cars was amazing, with each step making perfect sense. At the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the owners of the journal saw a new Linotype machine--the device that revolutionized typesetting by injecting hot lead into molds to make type. You know, one of the owners said, we could use this to make little toys. Laundries were a middle class necessity back then--sort of like fast food places are now. As with fast food places, they got the parents' business by drawing in the kiddies. And they drew in the kiddies by dangling toys. The National Laundry Journal kept subscribers happy by hooking them up with cheap toys to hand out to customers' kids.
So the journal bought a machine, started making little trinkets--flatirons, top hats, Scottie dogs, battleships, cannons--they gave to their subscriber laundries. If that list of trinkets sounds familiar, you're thinking of Monopoly pieces. Charles Darrow, the game's inventor, used a handful of National Laundry Journal giveaways as game pieces. Soon the company was supplying the makers of Monopoly with tokens, and before they knew it the journal had fallen away and they were a toy company.
This is a long way of saying that corporate life can be very complicated, with little connection between the business of today and what they once did. Were some shame to suddenly be applied to 19th century laundry journals, it would be rather unfair, in my eyes, to punish Strombecker, which has been making toys for decades and decades.
This makes sense to me, but people such as Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd) operate in a different moral sphere. For her, the past is the present, at least when it comes to extorting money.
Tillman is the loudest voice on the City Council calling for reparations for slavery, and I wish she thought of reparations as a social issue and not a money-in-her-pocket issue. The idea that slavery exerts some kind of lingering malign influence on the black community has one unassailable argument in its favor: Why else is there such a significant block of black poverty, criminality and social disfunction? If not for several centuries of slavery, followed by a century of discrimination so fierce it might as well have been slavery, then what is the explanation? I can't think of one that doesn't come perilously close to the ravings of the Matt Hales of the world. Either slavery, plus repression, plus boneheaded public policy is the cause, or the explanation is some kind of inherent general flaw, and I don't accept that.
Sadly, Tillman isn't much interested in exploring that approach. She's interested in identifying businesses she can shake down and so is taking the corporate culpability route or, as I prefer to think of it, rattling the tin cup. A trucking firm owned by a freight hauler whose parent company was bought by the shell of a now-defunct railroad that once carried slaves, she is arguing, has a moral taint that must be confessed to the City of Chicago before said trucking company can be allowed to haul trash.
The idea being that, eventually, the city will want to shake a tin cup at that trucking company, based on its hereditary guilt, and they'll toss some money in because they feel so awful, or because they want to do business with the city, and that money can be used to buy pie that Tillman can slice up and hand out in her ward.
Everyone bows their head when "slavery'' gets mentioned. The Council passed an ordinance requiring that all new contractors with the city file affidavits declaring any corruption from the taint of slavery. That isn't good enough for Tillman. She wants all companies doing business with the city to take the pledge, not just new contractors, and perform this time-wasting and meaningless bit of symbolism.
History is a bad place. You don't have to trace your company back to 1865 to be stained. Henry Ford was a vicious anti-Semite whose published ravings directly inspired Hitler. Yet I would not want the city to refuse to buy Fords for the police as some sort of time-traveling punishment. Nor is it a good idea to demand they cut a check to the Jewish United Fund as a moral balm. That's not correcting wrongs, which sit frozen in the past, but using history as extortion.
I don't live in Tillman's ward, thank God. But if I did, I would wonder why, with all the problems that my alderman could spend time addressing, she is basically hatching an extortion scheme. No companies have yet confessed to profiting from the slave trade, but when one does, I want you to watch how cheaply Tillman sells her past, what pittance payment is needed for her to declare that all is forgiven. She's a fool.
She's a fool.
DOROTHY TILLMAN, Chicago Alderman: What has happened to us as a people in this country had never... we've never had a public airing or a public hearing on it. If you talked about it, something happened to you. And I think America, in order for it to heal and move forward, that we have to discuss it and it has to be dealt with because that's the ugly secret of America, the shame of America, what America did to slavery-- to slaves, and what it did to us.
I'm going with boneheaded public policy.
The fallacy of Tillman's folly is that she's trying to punish someone for something their great grandfather might have done.
Most certainly not. But they might want to consider the vulnerability of the Crown Vic's gas tank in rear-end collisions. However Ford Motor has risen above the rantings of Henry. It was the first major corporation to defy the Arab boycott to trade with Israel. This cost them a lost of Arab business. And, they employ a lot of Jews.
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