You can never find a mule when you need one. As for 40 acres of fertile land for a few million blacks--well, the frontier just isn't as limitless as it once seemed.

One hundred thirty-five years ago, two months after the Civil War ended, the federal government promised freed slaves their small stake in the American dream. The so-called Freedmen's Bureau pledged to give ex-slaves 40-acre homesteads "where by faithful industry they can readily achieve an independence." The idea stirred up the dander of Andrew Johnson, the president-by-accident after Lincoln's assassination, and the Feds broke the pledge almost as soon as they'd made it. For good measure, the bureau told the few blacks who had already received land that they had to return it to their former owners--or be evicted.

You may say that the War Between the States and Reconstruction are far away. Another time. Another world. Not for Aetna, the country's largest health insurer, which last week apologized for selling life insurance policies in the 1850s that reimbursed masters for financial loss when their slaves died. Aetna refused to make any financial restitution, because the insurance policies--issued a full decade before emancipation--didn't break any laws.

Not that laws offered much protection to blacks in the ensuing years. It's no accident that there wasn't a single prosecution for the 3,244 lynchings of blacks between 1889 and 1916. Or that in 1923, when Florida became the first state to electrocute people sentenced to death, the first five electrocutions were all of black men--and so were five of the next six.

A century and more after the Civil War, we're still loathe to look race, and racism, in the eye. The tut-tutting that goes on about blacks being on the dole more than whites and about the high crime rate among blacks only perpetuates assumptions about blacks that originally put them into slavery: They're lazy savages who need the day-to-day, benign guidance of kindly whites to civilize and tame them.

Unless we go to back to slavery, to that horrible first cause that got us into this racial mess, everything else will be paltry and wan. Full and proper reparations from the U.S. government are the answer. Much as Washington gave $20,000 to every Japanese-American who was in U.S. internment camps during World War II, and just as Germany has paid more than $60 billion in restitution for Jews killed in the Holocaust, the United States must make good on its long-forgotten debt to blacks.

For the 244 years between the arrival of the first black slaves in North America and "emancipation" in 1863, roughly 10 million slaves worked for their masters. If you calculate their wages at 25 cents a day--the going rate for unskilled labor back then--then blacks were cheated out of $222 billion. Add 3 percent interest compounded over the 137 years since emancipation, and we end up with about $15 trillion.

There are no assurances that distributing such a staggering sum among blacks whose ancestors were slaves would do any social good. Instead, the money could be used to finance the construction of schools, housing, transportation grids, or factories in economically depressed areas where descendants of slaves live. It could finance new black-owned companies, put poor black kids through college, endow cash-poor historically black colleges.

The government couldn't afford to pay the $15 trillion in one lump sum, so a 244-year installment plan--the same number of years that blacks were enslaved--can be worked out. That may not please the fiscally minded, but odds are that slaves, at some time, contributed to these people's family wealth--or to the wealth of the state in which they live.

The time to pay that debt has more than honorably passed. Aetna had the right idea last week when it apologized for selling policies to masters that insured slaves as if they were farm equipment. Now we, as a nation, have to go beyond apologizing and truly redeem ourselves by backing up our words with hard, green currency from the U.S. mint.

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