International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Does America Need a Truth Commission?

blacklivesmatterGiven a history of race relations, marred in the past by slavery and in the present by discrimination, violence, and inequality, does America need a truth and reconciliation commission? Some people think so.

This article from the Carnegie Council  makes a case for it, citing the well known precedents set by the South African TRC, and lesser known truth commissions in Canada and Maine. This article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times also advocates for a truth commission, arguing “we as a nation need to grapple with race because the evidence is overwhelming that racial bias remains deeply embedded in American life.” This CNN article bluntly exposes some the of the obstacles to creating a truth commission:

Ultimately the deepest objection to a racial truth and reconciliation process in America is that it would be hard. Hard to start and to finish. We Americans can be a bit lazy when it comes to messy civic and historical truths. We want our stories — and our Story — to have happy endings. We want reconciliation on the cheap.

This is uncomfortable and unfamiliar terrain for many of us who have not suffered from racism, yet are now confronted with storieslittle girl us flag of unjust shootings, reports of institutionalized racism, and debates about what and who constitutes “America.” But we have learned a few things from international experiences with truth and reconciliation. So, let’s discuss what a truth and reconciliation commission could and should look like here.

What types of violations should such a commission address? How can a commission seek both factual and social truths? How should we define “victims” and “perpetrators”, if at all? How can the commission be constructed, led, and its findings disseminated to enhance its credibility? What are the political and social obstacles to establishing a truth and reconciliation process? What have we learned about other truth commissions successes and failures that we can apply to the American context?




5 responses to “Does America Need a Truth Commission?

  1. tlunn April 15, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    Especially in light of the plethora of race-related crimes and incidents of police brutality, it seems that it is more imperative now than ever for the United States to hold a truth commission. Such a commission obviously needs to make as many truths as possible known in regards to de jure racism and its institutionalization – i.e. issues related to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and general segregation. However, to stop there would be to limit the mandate of the commission to factual truths. In order to examine fully the whole issues, as well as its present-day implications, the commission needs to investigate social truths. It is important to note that many of these do stem from and perpetuate the legalized institutionalization of racism in the United States. Because every person of color in the United States has inherently dealt with some challenges that white Americans do not have to face, it would be hard to establish whom the commission should address. Crossing the fine line between only discussing those “most worthy” – such as Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner – and including everyone would perhaps be the commission’s toughest job. Likewise, determining perpetrators would prove difficult. At this point, it would only make sense to expose those who have gone above and beyond. Those who have been involved with police brutality, hate crimes, etc. would need to be addressed, but not every business owner who ran a segregated operation in the 1950s would and should be. The commission itself should be comprised of a diverse group of individuals from a multitude of backgrounds, but should be kept rather small. It is hard to say whether or not there should be white Americans on the commission, but it might give some something to some skeptics of the commission and its goals. Social and political challenges will be ubiquitous – people from both sides of the aisle need to trust the commission, as do white Americans and people of color. It might should skeptical to say so, but perhaps those most likely to deny racism’s lasting presence in America will continue to do so after such a commission, so it would probably be more beneficial to give priority to the victims. Perhaps the most important thing to keep note of is similar to what we saw in the TRC in South Africa – testimonies cannot be held to factual truths and a few sentences alone. Because racism is so engrained in America, and in many ways so subtly, it is of the utmost importance to include factual and social truths. Furthermore, unlike the Canadian truth commission, an American one should allow victims to name names, at least in the worst case scenarios.

  2. leckstei24 April 22, 2015 at 10:01 pm

    I think that the actual creation of the commission is possibly one of the most interesting aspects of this debate. As tlunn has pointed out, there are countless reasons for creating a truth and reconciliation commission around the topics of racism and racial oppression in the United States but the sheer size of this task is daunting and could possibly influence the plausibility of creating an actual commission. Although countries such as South Africa have shown that perhaps a truth commission can address many of the larger issues of racial oppression, the United States could arguably have a much larger task due to the lengthy history and extent of issues regarding racism. Although the Civil Rights movement created the largest platform for social change in the United States, the fact that racism still persists on such an extreme national level can itself be demonstrative of the challenge of creating a truth and reconciliation mechanism in the United States. If created, the commission or whatever similar mechanism must be able to have the capacity to work in every state and with cases that range in countless forms. Furthermore, a timeline must be established and perhaps tiering of crimes must be established, as is executed with the gacaca courts in Rwanda. Finally, although I write this with disappointment, I believe the United States and its citizenry are far from being able to reconcile many of the atrocities and crimes that have taken place on the platform of racism in our nation, both in the past and present.

  3. mjacobson565 April 26, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    I agree that the size and scale of racial discrimination within this country makes it extremely difficult to consider the truth and reconciliation model for the United States and I also agree with tlunn that those that are skeptical about racial injustice in our country are unlikely to be swayed by the establishment of truth commission. I do believe that a truth commission could be successful in the United States if they attempt to find structural truth and put enough strength behind a potential Commission’s report to fix racial discrimination in the justice system and political and economic inequality across races. A United States truth commission may want follow the lead of the Argentinian truth commission, which uncovered knowledge and established without a doubt facts about the oppression committed by the military regime. By addressing and establishing how racial discrimination and inequality has been perpetuated in our country, steps can be taken to address these problems in the form of political and judicial reforms. One of the major issues with the South African Truth and Reconciliation (that a US truth commission should avoid) was that its focus on individualized guilt seemed to take the system of apartheid as a given, only addressing crimes in excess of what was legal under apartheid. The United States, if a truth commission is created, must focus on the institutions responsible for these issues and not place all of the blame on individuals.

  4. pollorey April 26, 2015 at 11:12 pm

    Amidst recent unrest regarding institutionalized racism and police brutality, Chicago is working to offer the country’s first formal program for reparations for police violence after reports of at least 110 African American men having experienced forms of torture at the hands of the Chicago Police Department—notably at the hands of commander Jon Burge—from 1972 to 1991. Burge is notorious for using torture to elicit false confessions from African-American men for crimes they did not commit. While Burge was never convicted of any of his crimes, he was incarcerated in 2010 for four years on charges of perjury. For years, victim advocates campaigned without success for an official apology from the city. In an act of symbolic reparation, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the history “a stain on the city’s reputation”. Through the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM), the People’s Office—along with other lawyers, community organizers, activists, and families—wrote the first draft of an ordinance—which has become the central focus of Chicago’s Black Lives Matter movement—to provide reparations. The ordinance demands “public recognition of the torture, including memorials; recovery services for victims and their families, including job placement, mental-health counseling, and free tuition to city colleges; and a $5.5 million fund for financial reparations. It will also require the Chicago public schools teach the history of Burge’s torture regime in eighth and 10th grades.” The reparations ordinance will come before the City Council for a vote on May 6th. If approved, Chicago will have taken a big step towards addressing the racial issues that have long been and continue to be ignored by the nation.
    While the United States’ legal system has failed to establish retributive justice on behalf of victims who have been unjustifiably murdered or imprisoned at the hands of law enforcement, reparations are a form of restorative justice for the families of victims. A further step can be taken through the establishment of a truth commission to establish truth-telling and foster reconciliation in a country that has been historically divided on racial lines. Although not every victim’s truth can be told, it would be symbolic to see perpetrators of serious crimes condemned for their actions. Furthermore, while the Black Lives Matter movements have been relatively peaceful, there have been reports of alleged ‘revenge’ killings of police for the deaths of victims of police violence, crimes which could further escalate with the ongoing unjust killings of people of color. If the truth commission were to be successful in deterring future acts of discrimination and violence against minority populations, the victims would finally be given the opportunity to be at peace with the nation.


  5. McLaughry May 1, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    I hate to take the unpopular opinion here, but I do not believe that a truth commission would be appropriate or effective in the United States. I actually disagree with the original post that the greatest challenge for a racial truth and reconciliation process is that it will be hard to start and finish. I think that the greatest obstacle would be legally justifying that it should take place at all.

    Truth commissions are often and most effectively used after atrocities in tandem with amnesties and judicial proceedings. While there has been racial tension and racial profiling of civilians by the police, it is hard to argue that the threshold of “atrocity” has been achieved. Furthermore, without the United States in a stage of transitional justice or defined as a post-conflict zone, is a truth commission really appropriate?

    Truth commissions are often created to set up hearings that will unveil truths about serial human rights abusers or in cases of impunity after discovering systemic wrongdoing by the government. I believe that the police in the United States have racially profiled men and women on the street and acted in a disproportionate manner towards those of minority races. I do not believe that the United States president, administration, authorities, government or military have been responsible for systemic atrocities in the United States. I think the more appropriate course of action would be to pursue an investigation into police ethics and address the systemic problems that exist within the police force.

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