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Posted under: Opinion Politics

Why America Is Desperately In Need Of A Truth Commission

Truth commission processes have been replicated across the world for societies still hunkered down by their pasts.

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Racism proves again to be a cancer ravaging American society. Daily, it seems to have metastasized to an uncontrollable disease that is snuffing out human dignity, relationships, careers and common decency in the U.S. The various incidents of racial strife over the last several years, ranging from continued police brutality to the rise in racist extremist groups to stark social and economic inequalities, points to the inescapable reality that America is paralyzed by racism.

The recent events we've seen following George Floyd’s murder are only symptoms of deep racial issues in the U.S. Civil rights leader Malcolm X famously barked in one of his fiery speeches that America is sitting on a powder that’s close to detonation. More and more, his words are ringing true. Floyd’s killing  was among a long list of unjust killings of unarmed Black people not just in 2020, but in recent years. This is coupled with the constant daily harassment Black people face from having the police weaponized against them, and the fallout from COVID-19, which ravaged through many Black and indigenous communities. Consider the past and present protests and realize that this is bigger than any particular case of police brutality.

The aforementioned events, among other things, have continued to perpetuate divisions, especially as protestors have destroyed relics of the confederacy and other elements of America’s colonial past. As we’re seeing, our divisions and animosities exist in are our pluralistic narratives concerning race, ranging from the genocide of Native Americans and the veneration of Christopher Columbus, to the true relationship between the civil war and the confederacy maintaining slavery. Whether we realize it or not, America is a society still in conflict, which is extremely ironic because every year we send billions in foreign aid to post-conflict countries to help them transition to democractic, fair and stable societies, while we ourselves are being torn apart by our own racial and ethnic cleavages.

Like any other society that’s faced protracted conflict, we've struggled to make sense of the current events, truth and what happened. Americans themselves might not see or recognize our scenario as being a protracted conflict. However, imagine turning on the news and seeing riots, discord and military personnel on the streets of a capital city in Africa or South America. Or reading about continued extrajudicial killings and violence  by police. What would be our response? We’d very much say that these places are embroiled in conflict.

Moreover, the truth about our past seems crystal clear to some and is blurred by a flurry of emotions for others. This is even more evident, as some schools districts across the country grapple with what should be taught in history classes. This is why America is desperately in need of a truth commission, or historical commission of inquiry, that looks at how the indiscretions of the past can be remedied and repaired today.

After the horrors of Apartheid, the Government of National Unity passed The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 34 of 1995, formally establishing the (TRC) Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. While this process wasn't perfect and South Africa still has race issues surrounding social and economic inequality today, it allowed South Africans to deal with their grievances and come to a consensus on the legacy of Apartheid and how to move forward. Truth commission processes have been replicated across the world for societies still hunkered down by their pasts.

While some communities and states have created mechanisms to redress the past ( i.e. the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission), the United States, on a national level, has never done this — and it's desperately needed. This is especially true at a time where thousands of Americans rely on conspiracies, alternative facts and fake news as a means of educating themselves about history, politics and other major current events. Our lapse in truth has cost us dearly. While a truth commission is a mechanism used for transitioning societies, it's arguable that America is still transitioning towards being the free and equal society that’s enshrined in its constitution. As we’ve seen in many examples across the globe, conflict persists when domestic institutions fail to remedy key issues of structural and physical violence, and what’s happening in the United States is no different. While America has a vast network of government institutions and laws, they still haven’t resolved our  race problem.

In the last few months, many have been shocked and dismayed by the killings of  George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, as well as the tumultuous aftermath, citing that this isn’t who we are as a nation. But, in fact it is. Those who make such claims are missing a large chunk of our nation’s history, such as about 400 years of systematic slavery, Jim Croism, Genocide, a drug war against poor and minority communities, along with mass incarceration to follow. Also, despite some police departments and municipalities making swift changes and cutting budgets, police brutality continues to persist, along with impunity. The police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor while she slept are still free.

The ultimate question is, are we ready to deal with America’s racist legacy in a formal way? We are having discussions about race ad nauseum in this country, but it’s high time to do this in a formal way. Especially in an era of historic revisionism through the spread of disinformation via social media. The process will be complicated, painful, raw and gritty. Creating a centralized official institution to deal with the legacies of America’s racist past will be controversial, and it will need the support of  many Americans, regardless of political views or race.

We see how political will can be utilized to address the legacy of racism by the removal of Confederate monuments around the country. Why not use this current political capital to create an official truth telling process?

While removing confederate monuments and odes to colonialism is a step in the right direction, it’s not enough. Dealing with the legacy of racism in the U.S. must confront what those past moments represented and how it impacts American society currently. I don't think that truth and reconciliation is a panacea for all of America's racist ills, however, it's a start.

The path towards transformation and reconciliation in American society can't be just symbolic. It has to be based on justice which is wed to the truth. Perhaps the consequences of not dealing with our racist past has not been great enough yet, but it appears day by day that they will.

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Jared O. Bell holds a PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He is a post-conflict development expert based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina where he works designing projects and programs to promote human rights, rule of law, reconciliation, and economic development. A profilic writer, Jared has publish numerous articles on human rights, transitional, reconciliationand peace building, and is the author of the book “Frozen Justice:Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina's Failed Transitional Justice” published with Vernon Press in 2018.