Deeply disturbed by the violent racial unrest in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, Tom Perriello, a former congressman and State Department diplomat, recently called for a statewide Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
This is an idea whose time has come, not just for Virginia but the entire nation. If done properly and well, a commission of respected citizens drawn across all the lines that separate Americans from one another — regional, social, economic, religious, generational, cultural, and racial — would assemble to help citizens relearn about our shared history.
More than merely offering a safe space for score-settling or airing grievances, the ultimate ambition of a commission would be to design a path away from the country’s long-held pattern of historic racial progress, followed by white supremacist retrenchment.
Perriello outlined his idea earlier this month in a thoughtful essay published in the Washington Post, where he observed that Virginia is the “birthplace of American democracy” and “also the birthplace of American slavery.” That analysis, perfectly framing the duality of our national ideals and our failure to live up to them, would be the centerpiece of a commission. As Perriello, a friend and former colleague of mine, explained:
We often hear our history described as a steady progress toward equality, but in reality, each generation that has pushed for progress has faced violence from those who seek to preserve a system of racial hierarchy…
It is time to break this cycle. Virginia should establish a statewide Truth and Reconciliation Commission on race that could bend this endless loop of progress and backlash into an arc of justice.
Not only is a candid reckoning of America’s racial history needed, it’s long overdue. Perriello accurately points out that the nation has a history of taking a cautious step forward to absolve itself of slavery’s original sin and then two or more leaps backwards to reimpose white supremacy.
Indeed, the United States was founded on the noxious compromise that black slaves were three-fifths of a person for taxation purposes. For centuries, under a system of chattel slavery, it was legal and accepted economic policy to import human slaves from Africa to work under the most severe conditions to enrich white, Southern plantations and Northern industries.
Slavery ended only after a brutal Civil War, but the cycle of racial progress and resistance repeated itself in nearly every generation thereafter. Following the Civil War, for example, a brief period of Reconstruction lasted for less than a decade and led to greater political, educational, and economic opportunities for the freed slaves. But it was short-lived, as white communities passively and actively supported lynching and Ku Klux Klan activities to restore complete white superiority across the South.
Another great leap forward toward undoing past racial injustice occurred with the landmark 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared separate schools for black students inherently unequal and illegal. And, once again, the reaction of white separatists, such as massive resistance campaigns in Virginia, undermined the potential for racial healing.
Similarly, affirmative action programs in the 1970s were designed as a remedy for institutionalized policies that prevented blacks, women, and other minority groups from taking full advantage of opportunities for advancement, like education and employment. But those programs were demonized as “reverse discrimination” against whites and have become political poison, setting the stage for the latest round of white resistance to perceived black social gains.
In this contemporary setting — described by CNN commentator Van Jones as a “whitelash” — the nation selected a businessman, widely viewed as sympathetic to the white nationalist movement, to be president. As such, Donald Trump took office immediately following the historic election of the country’s first African American president. “This was a whitelash against a changing country,” Jones said on election night. “It was whitelash against a black president in part.”
While officials within the government have apologized for slavery, the nation still seems divided over the meaning and history of the Civil War. The failure to learn these lessons was at the heart of the recent Charlottesville protests, where Trump praised as “good people” some of the misguided white supremacists who sought to glorify a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In truth, the white nationalist protesters were holding up a traitor to the Union as an American hero. Or, as Bob Cesca, a regular Salon contributor, recently wrote, “Trump doesn’t understand that these statues he suddenly claims to love so much are actually memorials to a myth — definitely not actual Southern heritage.”
The formation of a truth and reconciliation commission, or TRC, wouldn’t unwind U.S. history or replace it with a sanitized version. Rather, it could provide the necessary context and space to help all of us understand why we’re still fighting the same old wars generation after generation.
The nation still seems divided over the meaning and history of the Civil War.
The most critical component of an effective TRC that delves deeply into race is, ironically, its greatest challenge for success. Conversations about race in America are fraught and finding people with credibility across the many divisive boundaries seems like a Sisyphean task. After all, if Americans are still clashing over the history and meaning of Confederate statues, how can they agree on any set of facts?
While Perriello acknowledges a national TRC effort is “a nonstarter because we have a racially divisive person in Donald Trump as president,” he does think local community and state-level TRCs could be effective. “The key, however, is to have people of respect leading the process,” he told me in a recent conversation. “It’s about bringing together prominent historians, moral leaders, community leaders to actually deal with this issue in meaningful ways.”
A perfect case in point: immediately after South Africa’s first democratic government came to power under then-President Nelson Mandela, one of its first acts was the establishment of a TRC. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was appointed the TRC’s chairman largely because of his moral standing in the country, told The Guardian newspaper that the commission was “an incubation chamber for national healing, reconciliation and forgiveness.” The South African TRC’s findings, detailed in a 463-page report served as a model for how a racially troubled nation comes to terms with a history of oppression.
Monica Joyi, a spokesperson for the South African TRC, told the Huffington Post that the commission invited perpetrators of violence to speak about what they had done without fear of being prosecuted. That decision enabled facts, no matter how painful, to be brought into the light and for national healing to begin.
“I think the [establishment of TRC] was to appease the fears of white South Africans; but at the same time, to give answers to those many mothers who had lost children and their loved ones through atrocities of apartheid,” Joyi said. “If you look at the whole notion of amnesty, and how the perpetrators (some of them) were granted amnesty, you begin to wonder what a forgiving nation and black South Africans are specifically.”
Typically these panels are formed as soon as possible after the discovery of wrongdoing by a government with the expectation that a thorough understanding of the roots and realities involved in past conflicts will allow a society to move forward and ensure past mistakes aren’t repeated in the future.
Perriello, who served as a special U.S. envoy to the African Great Lakes during the final year of the Obama administration, told me that the racial challenges on display in Charlottesville were eerily familiar to what he witnessed while observing and negotiating global conflicts. “One of the things that was fascinating to me in my work over the last 15 years in places like Afghanistan, West Africa, and the Balkans, I’m often showing up in other peoples’ countries at the equivalent of our Reconstruction,” he said. “I’ve worked in conflict zones around the world and countries that have been able to move beyond a cycle of conflict are those that haven’t just brushed it under the rug.”
Perriello isn’t alone in this view. The W.K.Kellogg Foundation recently announced that it would spend nearly $24 million over the next two to five years to help 14 communities across the nation examine how to deal with racial inequities. The Kellogg effort is an attempt to inspire citizens to come together in TRC-like discussions and to rebuild fractured relationships with police, local governments, and other institutions that have contributed to racial unrest in their communities.
Rebecca Noricks, a communications officer at the foundation, said during an interview that Kellogg has been working on racial equity for decades, but stepped up its efforts over the past few years as police killings roiled black communities.
“We’re seeking transformation, not in returning communities to what they’ve always been.”
“We recognized that to change systems structures and institutions, we really had to start with relationships and helping people know one another,” she told me, noting that the foundation ultimately seeks to help build more inclusive communities. “We’re seeking transformation, not in returning communities to what they’ve always been. We’re asking the question of what would happen if we created something entirely different, if communities come together across the barriers that separate them.”
That’s Perriello’s ambition as well. Indeed, as I spent several weeks earlier this year working as a policy adviser in his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination for Virginia’s governor, I heard him speak often on racial themes before audiences that ran the spectrum of nearly all-white to almost entirely people of color to an array of racial and ethnic diversity. The concept of a TRC to deal with race in Virginia — and across America — universally drew positive reactions.
“I think it’s really an exciting opportunity and a ripe moment for us to deal with racial healing and reconciliation,” Perriello told me. “This is something where we have to give human beings, and particularly Americans, a lot more credit for doing the right thing. There are tipping points and I think the value of a commission like this, done right, is in the potential to bring all of us together.”