Does the United States need to consider appointing a truth and reconciliation commission? This week I caught a news story about the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which concluded its work on December 15, 2015 to uncover the truth about Canadian mistreatment of aboriginal children and to seek reconciliation between the aboriginal community and larger Canadian society. The occasion of the release of the report was recognized with a statement by Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in which he praised the work of the Commission, its search for truth, and affirmed the need for continued reconciliation.
This got me thinking about how issues of race and inequality continue to be problems in American society. From the multitude of press stories about seemingly unjustified police shootings of Black men to the recent U.S. Supreme Court argument regarding affirmative action in college admissions we see issues of race, inequality, and social injustice continuing to be a part of the American social and legal landscape. It amazes me that even in the 2016 Presidential campaign we see issues of race, prejudice, and fear continuing to be successfully exploited by candidates.
Absent a national effort to seek out the truth of our history, it will be very difficult for our nation to move forward in healing the deep wounds created by a century of slavery (I’m counting from the nation’s founding; I recognize that the actual history of slavery in North America is much longer) followed by a century of Jim Crow and segregation, followed by decades of prejudicial policing and economic injustice. For most White Americans these issues are mentally relegated to the area of “Black History” with the implication that it’s of little relevance to them. I wonder if it is in the labels that truth gets lost. Maybe there is no such thing as “Black” history or “White” history, only a shared universal history found in whatever truth we can recover from the past. Slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow were not only Black experiences, they were an experience of all who lived during those times and are a legacy that all contemporary Americans have inherited.
Our search needs to be for something greater than a collection of facts that we call history, it should be for truth, no matter how messy or inconvenient it may be. Truth is not about vilifying or shaming, but about seeing ourselves as honestly and accurately as possible so that we can find reconciliation and freedom from the past. Denial is the product of a dysfunctional mind whereas truth is a pathway to healing from the dysfunction.
None of this is a novel idea. We’ve long known that one of the most important steps for a person struggling with an addiction seeking to become sober through a 12-Step program is a fearless and searching moral inventory followed by an effort to make amends except where it would be harmful. Religious traditions have long recognized that truth and repair are predicates to redemption. For example, this week I was attended the Friday evening service at Congregation Shomrei Torah and I read the following in the Jewish prayer book:
“You cannot find redemption until you see the flaws in your own soul and try to efface them. Nor can a people be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them. But whether it be an individual or a people, whoever shuts out the realization of his flaws is shutting out redemption. We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.”
Our national failure to seek out the truth of our history tethers us to the past. Sure, we all know the factual history that slavery and segregation once existed in the United States. What is lacking is the visceral connection that comes through a “searching and fearless” inventory that reveals the truths behind the history. It’s more than just knowing the basic facts, it’s understanding the why, the how, and the impact. The stories of both the oppressed and the oppressor must be told and heard.
When used in this context, truth is not something that is defined by a particular group. It’s not the property of the oppressed or the oppressor, but is owned by both. Without truth reality becomes distorted and both the oppressor and oppressed suffer. Consider the bizarre reasoning of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who recently wrote that slavery didn’t strip the slave of his or her dignity. Such reasoning is the intellectual denial of the truth.
Having sought out the truth, we then seek reconciliation with each other. As a lawyer working in the American legal system, reconciliation is a somewhat foreign concept to me. The system I work in proudly declares itself as an adversarial system where we seek to determine guilt, innocence, or liability, and then impose some form of retribution either in the form of jail or money. Repairing the relationship between the parties is not the goal and is rarely achieved. Therefore, I find it tempting to reduce reconciliation to its most simplistic concept and regard it as nothing more than apology, but that’s incorrect. In researching reconciliation, I found an interesting paper on reconciliation in Rwanda by Eugenia Zorbas in the African Journal of Legal Studies in which she writes:
“Reconciliation is a vague concept. In the wake of mass violence there is no goal past which ‘reconciliation’ has been achieved. My premise is that legal (prosecutorial) instruments, striking political compromises, publicly acknowledging the wrongs inflicted on victims, and other measures, as ‘messy’ as they may be, are all more acceptable than doing nothing. I label ‘doing nothing’ unacceptable first because of its ‘shocking implication that the perpetrators did in fact succeed’. Indeed, silences makes us complicit bystanders to the perpetrators of yesterday. Secondly, inaction is unacceptable because it leaves grievances, fears of reprisals, and cultures of impunity to fester, encouraging cyclical outburst of violence by the perpetrators of tomorrow… ‘Reconciliation’ is the umbrella term I will use to refer to this series of messy compromises, though it may be inconceivable or offensive to some, is thus the only sustainable and genuine form of prevention in societies that have undergone mass violence.”
In other words, we can’t simply declare the injustice over and then move on with life as if nothing happened. Unfortunately, moving on without reconciliation has been the American approach to social injustice to date. Whether we’re discussing slavery and segregation, native American genocide, or political persecution of communists and socialists, our solution has always been to declare the injustice to be unlawful and move-on. We outlawed slavery, then 100 years later outlawed segregation. We’ve outlawed employment and housing discrimination. We’ve even outlawed laws that outlawed interracial marriages. Yet not once have we ever engaged in national soul searching for truth followed by overt action intended to heal the wounds. In the meantime, we see repeat performances of the old demon of racism in our society. Perhaps it’s not too late. Maybe if we seek truth and reconciliation we can end the denial and start healing some of the wounds that are festering in American society.