In the United States, a country ruled by the ideology and practice of white supremacy since its inception, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on racism is being proposed. Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of constitutional law at New York City’s John Jay College of Law and the author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” says such a commission is what the U.S. needs. She is also a legal correspondent, covering the U.S. Supreme Court and major court cases.
An article by Browne-Marshall entitled, “America Needs a Truth Commission on Racism,” ran in Black Star News on April 15, 2013. In it, the author contends that “until America convenes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on racism, the complete African-American story will not be told.”
The collective history of African-American men, women and children throughout the centuries is one of a multitude of racial experiences. Black people have always been victims of white supremacy: through being enslaved and owned by others, from birth to death; through always being controlled and dominated, always being oppressed and repressed; through movement restriction; through forced medical experimentations and their bodies being branded with hot irons; and through repeated rapes, murders, beatings, whippings and lynchings.
Black people have been forcibly removed from their homes; their property stolen; their homes, churches, schools and orphanages bombed. They suffered through sharecropping and indebtedness, starvation and homelessness. Their kidnapped, enslaved infants were used as bait to catch alligators. They endured torture and racial terrorism, imprisonment, convict leasing and chain gangs. They experienced the denial of the right to vote, taxation without representation and elimination from jury service.
White supremacy has brought to the Black population kidnappings and disappearances; having to flee for their lives ahead of the Ku Klux Klan like refugees in combat zones, leaving behind family and property; miscegenation laws; retaliation and physical violence following Civil Rights gains; ongoing police brutality and a prejudiced justice system; continued intimidation, humiliation and degradation; persistent discrimination and segregation; excessive stop-and-frisk tactics by the police; and having to live in communities under siege.
Interestingly, while so many whites hate and discriminate against Black people, at the same time they emulate and co-opt “Black” music, dance, slang language, expressions and gestures.
No ‘post-racial’ society
African Americans have always needed to struggle and fight for the same civil and human rights and entitlements as white people. Privilege is bestowed upon whites at birth and throughout their lives. Blacks live in a society that refuses to accept the fact that they, too, are fully human, and should be treated accordingly, and refuses to acknowledge that Blacks also have a right to exist and live in peace.
Although the majority of the world’s population are people of color, African Americans in the U.S. have always been singled out as people for whom it’s “acceptable” to target and prey upon. The U.S. also exports its racism everywhere. The racist treatment of people of color in the U.S. is expanded in the government’s foreign policy towards people of color worldwide.
The U.S. is definitely not a “post-racial” society by any stretch of the imagination. “No such decision on racism can be made without first convening a Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” asserts Browne-Marshall.
The first commission on racism in the U.S. followed the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, when 23 Blacks died in attacks on their communities by European immigrants, explains Browne-Marshall. She relates that “in 1997 [former] President Bill Clinton convened a race [initiative] led by renowned Black historian John Hope Franklin.” The President’s Advisory Board on Race “met for 15 months, taking testimonies and visiting schools and communities. [It] examined the impact of racism, hoping to build a more united U.S. by embracing common values instead of focusing on divisions.” The commission produced the report “One America in the 21st Century: Forging a New Future.”
Not enough African Americans have been able to speak about their lives publicly. Former South African President Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison during apartheid for responding to unjust treatments of native South Africans, but lived to tell his story. Unlike Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated at age 39, did not live to tell his story.
Some 100,000 former slaves were still alive by the late 1930s. During the Great Depression, the Federal Writers Project, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, hired journalists and writers to travel the U.S. and record the memories of this last generation of African Americans born into bondage.
A painful history
More than 2,000 interviews were transcribed as spoken, in the vernacular of their time. They gave first-hand accounts of what it was like to be enslaved; of their pain and suffering; of the brutality, the fear and yearning, the spirit and deep-resonating sadness; the stories of a people whose enslavement built this country. These accounts are in the federal Library of Congress.
The prevalence of intergenerational trauma results from a legacy of injury. There has been no period of time without racism wherein Black people would have been able to heal their wounds.
Browne-Marshall emphasizes that U.S. racism remains threaded through criminal justice, housing, unemployment and education. “Like oil stains, racism taints the joy of oppressed Americans. Their spiritual wounds are left to fester, for fear that a Truth Commission would unleash uncontrolled emotions and stir prejudices.”
This writer adds that “Black heroics are played down, leaving only problems without full human dimension or soul. Empathy has limits.” And that “even sincere white Americans cannot know the rage, confusion, and sadness of racial discrimination. … Racism kills. It can be a slow death.”
“If Americans are weary of racism, then consider African-Americans, who have wrestled with it for nearly 400 years. Americans grew tired of hearing about slavery as early as 1883,” says Browne-Marshall. This was “less than twenty years after slavery ended.
“Today, America is simmering in racial injustice. Inner-city ghettos cannot contain growing discontent. Mass incarceration has not made Black people disappear,” asserts Browne-Marshall. And that “selecting a handful of Blacks for special treatment, while disregarding millions, has failed. Divide and conquer has run its course,” she adds.”
Reparations needed to close gap
In 1989, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced HR 40, a bill which would establish a “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans.” However, Congress has ignored his proposed legislation. Although he reintroduces it annually, HR 40 has met with little success.
Browne-Marshall says that 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,” she concludes.
Will testimonies by African Americans about the constant burdens of their daily lives — above and beyond the trials and tribulations the average person experiences — ever produce any lasting change or influence the mindset and behaviors of so many whites in the U.S.? Will the extensive damage be repaired? Will the obvious cause and effect relationships accounting for the plight of Blacks ever be recognized and sincerely remedied? Will whites have the will to take the necessary steps to move forward?
Will the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on racism ever become a reality in the U.S.? Will funding be appropriated? Of course, all this is possible. But, will whites ever opt for another, better world for all people?
African Americans will continue to suffer and remain at the very bottom unless the 400-year gap in progress is closed.