America Needs a Formal Truth-Telling Process, and  Right Now!

Racism proves again that it is a cancer that’s ravaging American society. As of late it seems to have metastasized to an uncontrollable disease that is snuffing our relationships, human dignity, careers, and common decency in the U.S. The various incidences of racial strife over the last several years, ranging from continued police brutality to the rise in racist extremist groups, points undoubtedly to the fact that America has a problem with race.

The recent events following George Floyd’s murder are only symptoms of the deep racial issues in the U.S. Civil rights leader Malcolm X famously barked in one of his fiery speeches that America is sitting on a powder that’s close to detonation.  More and more his words are ringing to truth.  Floyd’s killing was among a long list of unjust killings of unarmed black people, not just in 2020 but in recent years. This, coupled with the constant daily harassment Blacks face from having police weaponized against them and the fallout from Covid-19, that ravaged through many black and indigenous communities.

These events among other things have continued to perpetuate divisions, especially as protestors begin to destroy relics of the confederacy and other elements of America’s colonial past. As we’re seeing, our divisions and animosities exist in our pluralistic narratives concerning race ranging from the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the veneration of Christopher Columbus to the true relationship between the civil war and the confederacy maintaining slavery. Whether we realize it or not, America is a society still in conflict which is extremely ironic because every year we spend billions in foreign aid to post-conflict countries to help them transition, while we ourselves are being torn apart by our own racial and ethnic cleavages.

Like any other society that’s faced protracted conflict we have struggled to make sense of the current events, truth, and what happened. Americans themselves might not see or recognize our scenario as being a protracted conflict. However, imagine turning on the news and seeing riots, discord, and military personnel on the streets of a capital city in Africa or South America? We’d very much say that these places are embroiled in conflict.

Moreover, the truth about our past seems crystal clear to some and is blurred by a flurry of emotions for others. This is why America is desperately in need of a truth commission or historical commission of inquiry that looks at how the indiscretions of the past can be remedied and repaired today. After the horrors of Apartheid the Government of National Unity passed The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 34 of 1995 formally establishing the (TRC) Truth and Reconciliation Commission throughout South Africa. While this process was not perfect and South Africa still has race issues today, the process allowed South Africans to deal with their grievances and come to a consensus on the legacy of Apartheid. Truth Commission processes have been replicated across the world for societies still hunkered down by their pasts.

The United States has never done this and we desperately need to do so, especially at a time where thousands of Americans rely on conspiracies, alternative facts, and fake news as a means of educating themselves about history, politics, and other major current events. Our lapse in truth has cost us dearly, A truth commission is a mechanism used for transitioning societies, but America is still transitioning to being the free and equal society that’s enshrined in our constitution. As we’ve seen in many examples across the globe, conflict persists when domestic institutions fail to remedy key issues of structural and physical violence and what’s happening in the United States is no different. While America has a vast network of government institutions and laws, they still haven’t remedied its race problem.

In the last few weeks on social media, I’ve read various  comments by many who are shocked and dismayed by the killing of George Floyd and the tumultuous aftermath, citing that this isn’t who we are as a nation. But, in fact, it is. Those who make such claims are missing a large chunk of our nation’s history, such as about 400 years of systematic slavery, Jim Crow, Genocide, a drug war against poor minority communities, along with mass incarceration to follow.

The ultimate question is: are we ready to deal with America’s racist legacy in a formal way?  We are having discussions about race ad nauseam in this country, but it’s high time to do this in a formal way. Especially in an era of historic revisionism through the spread of disinformation via social media. The process will be complicated, painful, raw and gritty. Creating a centralized official institution to deal with the legacies of America’s racist past will be controversial, and it will need the support of many Americans, regardless of political views or race. We see how political will can be utilized to address the legacy of racism by the removal of Confederate monuments around the country. Why not use this current political capital to create an official truth telling process?

While removing confederate monuments and odes to colonialism is a step in the right direction, it’s not enough. Dealing with a legacy of racism in this country must confront what those monuments represented and how it impacts American society currently. Perhaps the consequences of not dealing with our racist past has not been great enough yet, but it appears day by day that they will.

Jared O. Bell holds a PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He is development practitioner based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina where he works to design projects and programs to promote human rights, reconciliation, and economic development. A profilic writer, Jared has published numerous articles on human rights, transitional, and peace building, and is the author of the book “Frozen Justice:Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Failed Transitional Justice”. Read other articles by Jared O..