St. Thomas Law Review

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The subject of Corporate Reparations has gained noteworthy momentum in recent years. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of former police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020 galvanized major United States corporate leadership into thinking about and committing to playing a sizeable role in ending systemic racism and bringing economic equality and social justice to the nation.
Doug McMillon, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Fortune #1 company Walmart, Inc. expressed as much when he stated in the wake of the George Floyd summer of protests:

"What I’ve come to realize is that it wasn’t just the physical weight of the officer that killed George Floyd. The forces at work were much greater. Behind the weight of the man was the weight of society — the weight of institutions and structures in which systemic inequity and injustice are engrained. The weight that killed George Floyd also was the weight of history — 400 years of discrimination against Blacks in this country. Together, these forces conspired to crush him. That weight needs to be lifted. . . . It will take broad cooperation of leaders from every sector of society working together to create a force sufficient enough to bring about the necessary change. So that’s what we’re doing."

True to his word, CEO McMillon and Walmart created shared value networks and racial equity divisions within its employee ranks, while committing $100 million dollars to racial equity causes. In support of those efforts, The Walmart Foundation and Walmart Inc. contributed $1.38 million to the
Center for Racial Justice and Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. . . . CEO McMillon is not alone. Hundreds of corporate executives made powerful statements and massive financial commitments to equality and justice in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks in the summer of 2020, including CEO Jamie Dimon at J.P. Morgan Chase. Dimon, after committing Chase to investing $30 billion combatting racial inequities primarily in Black and Latinx communities, stated:

“Systemic racism is a tragic part of America’s history. . . . We can do more and do better to break down systems that have propagated racism and widespread economic inequality, especially for Black and Latinx people. It’s long past time that society addresses racial inequities in a more tangible, meaningful way.”

Of these hundreds of corporate leaders that made similar statements and financial commitments, many began immediately executing on those promises. Today, it remains unsettled whether these corporate commitments will continue to be honored and executed, particularly in the “woke” backlash era that has emerged in the wake of the George Floyd summer that led to so many pledges of support for social justice. The results and outcomes of the formidable corporate commitments have been mixed thus far. Many of the companies that made enormous dollar commitments in 2020, did so in a way that benefits the committing firm directly in profit potential as much as it benefits the damaged communities. Further, many corporations have been wary to invest directly in Black Lives Matter and in organizations committed to reforming policing or criminal legal system reform.

Critics agree that 400 years of corporate discrimination cannot be overcome and reversed with pledges, commitments, and wary contributions. Still, the corporate commitments made in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder remain a watershed moment in U.S. history. In an environment where corporate leadership is recognizing that U.S. corporations have a role to play in ending systemic racism and in some instances are even acknowledging the roles that their corporations have played in perpetuating inequality, discrimination, and racial wealth gaps, will Corporate Reparations take root in meaningful and healing ways?

In deliberating on the potential for powerful change, one is confronted with the conundrum of what can be done about corporations and economic sectors that have historically engaged in blatant racial discrimination and to this day continue to ignore calls to repair the historical damage that these companies have done to communities of color, and particularly black communities. This article examines and evaluates one of the primary corporate sectors that engaged in disabling historical discrimination that visited severe harm on communities of color, and in particular the black community—namely the insurance industry.

Using the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre as a backdrop, we seek to provide a clarion call to insurance companies, many that continue in existence today, to own up to and begin to repair the debilitating harm that they perpetuated more than 100 years ago. Much has been written in recent years on the racially motivated atrocities and massacres of the early 19th century. However, save for those scholars viewing the events, in part or in whole, through the critical lens of racial capitalism in its myriad academic forms, less attention has been paid to the industries and businesses who directly or indirectly benefitted from the atrocities specifically, and white supremacy and government-back oppression broadly. Fortunately, through the work of activists, survivors, and archivists, this is less true of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, and it is to that atrocity that we return our attention here.

In an effort to better understand the intertwining and commingled relationship between the U.S. state and the insurance industry, from the colonial period to Tulsa to the present, we hope to continue a conversation within and among the legal profession about the often-blurred line between legal, “constitutional” political institutions and the corporations and industries they charter and, ostensibly, leave relatively free to participate in commerce as they please but often prop up, take lead from, and even unintentionally wind up benefitting all at the expense of the population the political institutions are intended to govern of, by, and for.

By first sketching a brief history of insurance in the United States, from its British maritime origins through the early standardization of fire insurance rates in the late 19th century, we will better understand the historical role of insurance in the United States, despite the industry so often remaining behind the scenes. We can then turn to Tulsa specifically and learn more about the insurance policies taken out by businesses and individuals on Black Wall Street in the early 20th century, what they expected to be covered by those policies, and why all claims made against those policies following the Tulsa Race Massacre have so far been denied.

After then examining the scale of the destruction at the time and its lingering aftermath, we will tune our ears to the echoes of insurance and injustice which continue to ring today. Following examination of such echoes, the question is begged, whether the insurance industry will take stock and decide to affirmatively repair the historical atrocities the industry has visited upon black Americans.