America Needs A Truth Commission on Racism

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Until the Lion writes his own history he will always be misrepresented. That’s what Frederick Douglass said.

Until America convenes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on racism, the complete African-American story will not be told.

Last month, an exasperated Justice Elena Kagan asked attorneys arguing the Shelby County voting rights case if the Supreme Court should really decide when racism has ended. Respectfully, no such decision on racism can be made without first convening a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

South Africa’s government sponsored a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town, in 1995. Apartheid ended legal segregation there. Black South Africans testified to life in wooden shack ghettos; of how murder, torture, and kidnapping by police comprised their daily lives. Students and teachers testified to schools without books, chairs, and heat. South African men and women spoke of humiliating body searches, beatings, and arrests while living under constant curfews without rights under law.

America’s first Race Commission followed the Chicago Race Riots of 1919. Twenty-three Blacks and 15 Whites died in attacks on African-American communities by Europeans. This 700 page Chicago report, published in 1922, sought to educate European immigrants by emphasizing their similarities with African-Americans in hopes of reducing unfair housing, employment discrimination, and political disenfranchisement.

In 1997 President Bill Clinton convened a Race Commission led by renowned historian John Hope Franklin. The Commission met for 15 months, taking testimony, visiting schools and communities, before presenting “One America in the 21st Century: The President's Initiative on Race.” Clinton’s Race Commission examined the impact of racism hoping to build a more united America by embracing common values instead focusing on divisions.

Times change. Nelson Mandela, revered today, was once a hunted terrorist. A trained lawyer, this former President of South Africa, served 27 years in prison. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mr. Mandela received a Nobel Peace Prize. Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. Mandela lived to tell his story.

Few African-Americans have spoken publicly about their grief over Dr. King’s assassination. Few have spoken about working on prison chain gangs. Few African-American elders who fled, like refugees in combat zones, have spoken publicly about leaving behind family and farm ahead of the ku kux klan. Few women have spoken of retaliatory rapes following gains in Civil Rights. Yet, these are real racial experiences.

Racism remains threaded in and out of criminal justice, housing, employment, and education. Like oil stains, racism taints the joy of oppressed Americans. Their spiritual wounds are left to fester for fear a Truth Commission would unleash uncontrolled emotions and stir prejudices.

Non-Black researchers receive millions in funding to study Black poverty, ill-health, under-education, and crime. Black heroics are played down leaving only problems without full human dimension or soul. Empathy has limits.

Even sincere White Americans cannot know the rage, confusion, and sadness of racial discrimination. Just as male feminists cannot know the pain of female rape. Straight people cannot grasp the fear of “coming out.” Young people cannot fathom an aging body. Racism kills. It can be a slow death. But to hold back a race of people the guard must stay back as well. The fate of the prisoner and the guard are connected.

If Americans are weary of racism then consider African-Americans who have wrestled with it for nearly 400 years. America grew tired of hearing about slavery as early as 1883. Less than twenty years after slavery ended, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley wrote "it would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination.” With that, five racial discrimination lawsuits were dismissed.

Today, America is simmering in racial injustice. Inner city ghettos cannot contain growing discontent. Mass incarceration has not made Black people disappear. Police harassment has increased racial tensions. Selecting a handful of Blacks for special treatment, while disregarding millions, has failed. Divide and conquer has run its course.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is needed. In 1989 U.S. Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced HR 40 which would create a “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans.” His proposed legislation was ignored. He re-introduces HR 40 every year, with little success.

In 2006, the American Bar Association (ABA), the world’s largest legal organization, passed Resolution 108A which asks Congress to create and appropriate funds for a Commission to study and make findings relating to the present day social, political, and economic consequences of both slavery and the denial thereafter of equal justice under law for persons of African descent living in the United States. For full disclosure, I served on the ABA committee which submitted this resolution.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission will not end racism. However, for America to move forward the Lion must add its story to the history book.  

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Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” and a legal correspondent covering the U.S. Supreme Court and major court cases. Twitter: GBrowneMarshall

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