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This national reckoning is overdue

The United States needs a sincere reckoning that must start with a truth commission to address and redress the painful legacy of slavery and the modern day manifestation of racism. Each time that an officially ordered, tolerated, or sanctioned killing of a black person occurs, a whole people in our nation becomes traumatized. They must live with it daily.

The death of George Floyd started massive political protests against the systematic practice of state violence against an ethnic minority. The rest of the nation woke up to the video of his killing. Human rights advocates call state violence, such as police brutality, a form of state terrorism and call on nations to redress it. Charges against the officers involved in his death are a first step toward justice, but they are barely enough.

We should learn from the numerous nations that started a reckoning with a truth commission, yet there has been minimal discussion of this option. American exceptionalism keeps us stuck in cycles of injustice. There are local attempts such as the Maine Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but never an attempt across the entire country to finally set the record straight. So why would a truth commission matter?

First, truth commissions analyze state violence as human rights violations. Reframing shifts how we talk about all these incidents as state sponsored and even tolerated forms of political repression of an ethnic minority that have violated international law. The United States is party to a number of human rights treaties. It is bound to ensure accountability and prevention of serious human rights violations. Ironically, the United States has issued countless condemnations of foreign governments within this very human rights framework for engaging in the same unlawful practices.

Second, truth commissions set the record straight. They raise awareness and attention to how to understand centuries of violent racial repression as systematic inequalities deeply embedded into our social, political, and economic systems and not merely isolated acts by racist individuals. Truth commissions in countries like South Africa, Guatemala, and Canada made these kinds of truths undeniable and unignorable by citizens.

Third, truth commissions start conversations about racial injustice that are more inclusive, sustained, and organized. The burden rests with the whole country to engage in this important dialogue and not only those who have suffered the harms of racial injustice. The United States has much to learn about how to even talk about this issue before it can solve it.

Fourth, truth commissions gather testimonies, hold public hearings, and simply listen to the many voices of those impacted by racist policies and practices. They provide the first step in offering official acknowledgment of the pain and suffering of those of color. Since human rights violations occur through the dehumanization of a person, justice and healing need this kind of human recognition. We need the space which communicates that we hear those who suffer and say sorry for their suffering.

Fifth, truth commissions push agendas for change. They diagnose causes and impacts of oppression and violence. They issue recommendations for reform and institutional change that address deeply embedded injustices. A truth commission is the first step to a critical commitment to change. It can start reparations that can include much more than compensation to redress harm. Symbolic reparations go toward recognizing past violence and set the stage for decades of education and awareness.

In 1989, John Conyers introduced legislation to create a truth commission for studying slavery and its impacts. Obviously, it never passed, although he continued to present the bill, often as the sole sponsor, each year until his final term for office. The bill was taken over last year by Sheila Jackson Lee, and it has now been sponsored by dozens of members. Significantly, the new bill references human rights to frame its remit. It will take strong political will to start and sustain a truth commission. This demand needs to come from all of us, and that time may finally be here.

Lisa Laplante is a professor at New England Law School based in Boston.

Tags Americans Congress Culture Democracy Government Law Politics Racism

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