While protests were happening in the streets of Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown, I was contacted by some concerned white folks about ongoing racism in the United States. We talked about the continuing reality of racism, the ways it has morphed since the end of Jim Crow, and how white people can engage in the work of racial justice. “Is it time for a truth and reconciliation commission in Ferguson,” they asked as we came to the end of our conversation. 1
“No, it’s too soon,” I replied.
And since that time the New York Times has published multiple pieces suggesting that now might be the time for a US Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on the legacies of racism that still plague the country today. My response to them is the same as it was after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson: “No, it’s too soon.”
I am a scholar of Christian ethics with a special focus on reconciliation. I’ve engaged in racial and post-conflict reconciliation projects, and have published on truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) in academic journals of theology and law. I believe, wholeheartedly, that there can be no lasting, sustainable justice in a pluralistic society without reconciliation. However, and I must be as clear as I can about this, there never can be reconciliation without justice.
Nicholas Kristof and Anand Giridharadas, the writers of the NY Times essays, named South Africa as a potential model for a US TRC. Giridharadas also cites Kenya, Cambodia, and Rwanda as examples. And these are not the only countries to use TRCs in recent years. Liberia and Argentina are just two more of the dozens that have occurred around the world. There has even been one already completed in the United States in Greensboro, North Carolina.2 TRCs have emerged as a creative responses to mass injustice and are, in my opinion, one of the most important human achievements of the last century. I believe they provide the possibility of achieving forms of justice that more traditional justice mechanisms often fail to achieve. However, they run the risk of moving people too quickly through justice to false reconciliation. In fact, they can create new injustices if they pursue reconciliation with blinders on to other social and political considerations.
For example, as Giridharadas points out, TRCs often suggest economic reparations and forms of historical justice (like monuments, historical documents, etc). Unfortunately, these recommendations too often go unfulfilled. Even Desmond Tutu, the Chair of South Africa’s TRC and one of the people most responsible for their proliferation around the world, has criticized South Africa for failing to implement economic reparations by those judged by the TRC to be owed them and, therefore, potentially undermining much of the reconciliation process in the country. There has been much talk about reconciliation in South Africa, but the economic conditions created by decades of apartheid are still firmly in place. Racialized economic inequality in South Africa, as in many other places around the world, make it hard to see anything like “reconciliation” being realized there. In short, a TRC is not a straightforward path to reconciliation.
In addition to recognizing the ways that TRCs are incapable of achieving reconciliation on their own, I think it is a moral imperative for us to notice the ways they can create new injustices. One factor that can have a big impact on whether TRCs perpetuate injustice or create new injustices has to do with the timing of a commission. The occasion for the majority of national TRCs is a major societal transition. South Africa, for example, held one as the country transitioned out of being ruled by an apartheid government toward a democratic one. Liberia had just come out of a civil war. Argentina had just emerged from a decade of “Dirty War.” And on and on and on. In short, TRCs most often come after or as a part defining moments of (potential) transformation for a society; usually after the resolution of particular experiences of widespread injustice and violence.
TRCs are one tool among many to move toward justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of injustice. What they aren’t is a tool for reconciliation in the midst of ongoing injustice. To begin speaking about reconciliation and TRCs in the midst of ongoing mass injustice is misguided and potentially immoral because it can distract people from, or give them an excuse not to engage in, the work of social justice.
The United States is presently in the midst of great racial injustice. Mass incarceration, if it is not “the new Jim Crow,” is a form of racial injustice imbedded in our social and political structures and systems. Racial segregation, and its concomitant racialized poverty, unequal education, and racialized health disparities, is increasing. The disproportionate killing of black people by police has birthed a new social movement. To suggest reconciliation in the midst of these realities is mistaken at best, unjust at worst.
It may have been the case that a TRC would have been appropriate after the Civil War or after the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. However, we did not pursue this path (in fairness, no nation had at these points in history). Instead, we’ve readily created new forms of racial injustice. Those pressing conditions must now be dismantled, not reconciled.
What the United States needs now is not reconciliation, because we are not yet ready. We are too unjust. What we need is more justice.
When we have a major change not dissimilar in scale to the end of slavery, Jim Crow, or apartheid we can consider a TRC. Until then the only thing we should consider – the primary thing we should work on doing – is becoming more just.
What might such a change look like?
It would need to be some historically significant societal change that would create an opportunity and focus for a national conversation about our history, present, and future. Some potential changes that would fit these criteria might be the passage of a major criminal justice reform bill or an economic reparations program for descendants of slaves.
For example, we may be ready for a national TRC regarding the place of Asian Americans, especially Japanese Americans, in the United States. We have overturned the historic exclusionary immigration laws that intentionally targeted Asians (based in part on racist stereotypes), and the federal government has offered a formal apology and a partial reparations program for Japanese Americans who were interred during World War II. It is at this point, and not before changes in federal law and moves toward material redress of past injustice, that it may be appropriate to do the hard work of reconciliation.
So, what do I suggest to white folks tempted today by the idea of a TRC? Work for justice. Work for a nonracist criminal justice system. Work for economic redress for those negatively impacted by slavery. Work for historical justice by building monuments and teaching histories that educate the public about our history. Work for the inclusion of all in as much of our public life as possible by ensuring voting rights are protected, desegregating society, and building up thriving institutions in America’s poorest neighborhoods.
And in building a more just society you’ll have actually gotten closer to reconciliation. Then let’s talk about a TRC.
*Editors note: As I was preparing to publish this post word came out that all charges are being dropped against the three officers who were still to be tried in the case of Freddie Gray. So, we have homicide with no one responsible for the killing. Maybe, just maybe, we could have just one police officer, department, or government institution held responsible for the killing of an unarmed, handcuffed, and/or nonviolent black person before we start talking about reconciliation.
- A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is “usually a government sponsored body commissioned with the tasks of discovering the truth about extreme injustices and human rights violations that occurred during a previous government regime, identifying the role of various parties and actors in the conflicts that led to the recent transition to the sponsoring government, “affecting the social understanding and acceptance of the country’s past,” and promoting and/or facilitating reconciliation between parties previously at odds.” James W. McCarty III, “Nonviolent Law? Linking Nonviolent Social Change and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions,” West Virginia Law Review 114.3 (2012): 973-4. ↩
- I have written an in-depth analysis of this TRC in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. ↩