America needs a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission

Traditional systems of law and punishment inadequately address the persistent epidemics of racial injustice and historic inequality that have plagued America for four centuries. These institutions cannot account for crimes committed against Black people and the deep intergenerational trauma they endure. Therefore, some people propose an American version of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Such forums provide restorative justice–healing among victims, perpetrators and the community rather than retribution–accountability for atrocities committed, recognition of suffering, and recommendations enabling reform and redress.   

Over seven years beginning in 1996, the South African TRC held public hearings on the evils, violence and human rights abuses committed under apartheid. Two thousand victims and perpetrators testified on their experiences. However, the process had flaws. Not all victims could testify, and none received economic restitution. Critics believed few whites were prosecuted because of political expediency.  

Other nations such as Germany, Belgium and Canada have undergone reconciliation to tackle their colonial and genocidal atrocities.

Moreover, American states and cities, including Greensboro, N.C., Iowa City and Maine formed commissions to confront racial injustice and historic inequality. A Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended reparations payments to the victims of the 1921 massacre of the Black community of Greenwood—”Black Wall Street”—by white mobs. The Oklahoma legislature rejected reparations, opting for college scholarships for victims’ descendants, a memorial and economic development.

Further, inspired by South Africa, district attorneys in Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco are convening Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commissions targeting police brutality, broken police-community relationships, racial injustice and inequities in the legal system—seeking public input to rebuild the justice system.

Similarly, in the midst of COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) proposed a U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) to assess the effects of slavery, institutional racism and discrimination on people of color, and the impact of history on present-day policies.

Historic inequality fuels our current crises, requiring a national reckoning on white supremacist icons and institutions. “America seems to have a talent for maintaining a culture of turning a blind eye to the grand evil that organized white men do, whether it is the greedy Wall Street, brutalizing police, enslaving prisons, racist NFL, predatory casting couches in Hollywood or the treacherous Confederacy,” said conceptual artist, activist and writer John Sims. Through his work, Sims has burned and buried the Confederate flag, repurposed plantations and advocated for repealing racist laws to further discourse and reconciliation.

“The Confederacy, its history, symbols and current narrative have never been brought to justice. This escape from justice – the legal, moral and spiritual kinds – is all too familiar when the crimes involve black people, reminding many of the killers of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, the young men in Algiers Motel in Detroit in 1967, and scores of others,” Sims added.  

Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commissions hope to resolve conflict by discovering and exposing a legacy of wrongdoing by government and society. America cannot move forward without confronting its past.