Slavery Reparations: Con or Meme?

Forget whether they should exist. Lots of people think, mistakenly, they do exist.

Chatterbox is always eager to learn about new trends in tax fraud, especially during the approach of spring. The latest, according to the Internal Revenue Service Web site, is the slavery reparations scam. The term sounds like a strident Horowitzian attack on proposed legislation that African-Americans be granted reparations for the cruelties visited on their ancestors prior to 1863. In fact, the term refers to a more mundane issue: Con men, primarily in the Southeast, are going to black churches and announcing that every African-American is currently by law eligible for $40,000 to $80,000 in slavery reparations. That, of course, isn’t true. The reparations can be claimed as tax refunds or credits, the hustlers explain, before offering to assist in filing the paperwork for a fee of $50 to $100. (For examples, click here. A few more ambitious practitioners demand a “percentage” of expected savings that can run into thousands of dollars.)

The number of slavery reparations claims (sometimes called “black tax credits,” “black investment tax credits,” or “black inheritance tax refunds”) increased from 13,731 to 80,000 between 2000 and 2001, according to the IRS. This sudden surge causes Chatterbox to wonder whether the alleged availability of slavery reparations has graduated from con to meme—i.e., that a critical mass of black people now believes the urban legend that the U.S. government offers slavery reparations and is filing for them without the assistance of con men. This reading is optimistic in the sense that Chatterbox doesn’t believe con men proliferate as rapidly as the increase in reparations claims suggests. But it’s pessimistic in the sense that Chatterbox believes that misinformation travels at least that rapidly in this electronic age.

Either way, why isn’t the Bush White House answering with a countermeme? If Bush were to inveigh publicly against this costly con/misapprehension, he could probably kill it off. But that would also risk making Bush look pro-taxation and might inadvertently stir up support for legislation to make slavery reparations a reality. (Bush opposes such legislation, as did Clinton, for persuasive budgetary and other practical reasons.) Still, with phony slavery-reparations claims now approaching $3 billion annually, such potential inconveniences aren’t a good enough reason to stay silent.