Panelists examine ‘scab’ left by slavery

Shruti Kumar

For Sibyl Offutt, the issue of reparations for blacks in the United States demands urgent attention.

“The scab needs to come off … the blood, the pus,” said Offutt, an Evanston resident. “It’s ugly and it’s going to get uglier.”

Offutt, a member of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, participated in the discussion with about 20 students and community members Thursday night at the Black House.

The forum, sponsored by the Northwestern Support Committee on Reparations and Sigma Gamma Rho sorority, included panelists Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd), NU professors Martha Biondi and Adam Green, and Education junior Elizabeth Whittaker.

The panelists stressed the process of working toward reparations, not the ultimate outcome of the movement.

“Reparations has the potential to be an expansive, broad-ranging, grassroots movement in black life,” said Green, a history professor. “To think that reparations is something driven only by experts is the wrong way to go about it.”

Although the reparations movement emerged more than 100 years ago with the emancipation of slaves, it now is gathering momentum as a new generation of activists join the effort to compensate the descendants of slaves for past treatment by the U.S. government.

“We need to build critical mass demand for society to change its course,” Jean-Baptiste said. “You have to see yourself as a one-person majority and represent wherever you are.”

Jean-Baptiste said the slave trade generated a large amount of capital in society, and this capital has been transferred from generation to generation, benefitting all groups but blacks.

“Another group is inheriting vestiges of the inequality,” said Jean-Baptiste. “The bottom line is that they owe us.”

Presenting a student’s point of view on the reparations debate, Whittaker said she first learned of the movement as a little girl from her mother.

Whittaker, who will spend the summer studying reparations, said she volunteers at a youth center and is bothered to see “beautiful and brilliant” black children fail in school in spite of their capabilities.

“There’s a problem and you can’t deny it,” Whittaker said. “Given all the evidence, given history, there is a need for reparations and a call for reparations that can’t be denied.”

Though the demands of the reparations movement are varied, some believe the U.S. government owes an estimated $8 billion to the millions of slave descendants who exist today.

Others say giving grants to support small black businesses is a better way to repay the black community.

Jean-Baptiste said there is no specific solution for the damages of slavery.

“Slave trade has been a crime against humanity, and we’ve been significantly damaged in many ways,” he said. “There is no specific remedy to slavery.”

Offutt said blacks have to be determined in order to accomplish their goals.

“Every one has to be their own Malcolm X and Martin Luther King,” Offutt said. “We all have to be leaders.”