Is it time for a U.S. truth and reconciliation commission?

15877Today, we have a guest post from Abena Ampofoa Asare, who teaches Africana studies and history at Stony Brook University and is author of the new book Truth Without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana. In Truth Without Reconciliation, Asare explores the truth and reconciliation commission process in Ghana, demonstrating how collected voices in the archives of this truth commission expand Ghana's historic record by describing the state violence that seeped into the crevices of everyday life, shaping how individuals and communities survived the decades after national independence. Here, Asare argues, victims of violence marshal the language of international human rights to assert themselves as experts who both mourn the past and articulate the path toward future justice. In this post, Asare draws upon her research to examine the relevance of calls for a truth and reconciliation commission in the United States today.

The calls for a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) on U.S. soil are mounting. Last year, the New York State Poor People’s Campaign’s “Truth Commission on Poverty” collected testimonies about economic hardship in one of the wealthiest states in the nation. In 2013, Ben Jealous, then of the NAACP, suggested that a formal TRC process might be necessary to investigate lynchings in the US South, the criminalization of Black liberation movements, and other unresolved histories of racialized violence. In December 2015, the Lakota People’s Law Project launched a campaign to establish a TRC about the 1869 Indian Boarding School Policy that removed thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native children from their families in order to force assimilation. In February 2018, actor Minnie Driver’s op-ed in the New York Times called for a TRC as a viable next step for the #MeToo movement. Just three months later, The New Republic’s Kevin Baker described a TRC on U.S soil as a once “outlandish” idea, whose time—with the advent of Trumpism—had finally come. “Americans must,” he wrote, “at some point, decide on which truths we still find self-evident.” On August 21, 2018, on the first day of the national prison strike, a friend posted on social media about the need for a TRC to address the 1971 murder of George Jackson at San Quentin State Prison.

These calls for a public accounting of the violence afflicting our body politic peal out from different quarters. For some, the unresolved national trauma is as old as this country’s birth in blood and water. For others, recent political dynamics require new mechanisms of redress. Clearly the idea of a TRC compels very different constituencies. Why? What might truth and reconciliation create on American soil?

For the past three decades, TRCs have been established in times when courts are unable to confront past violence and in places where the scale of harm dwarfs the potential of traditional punitive models. Diverse histories of violence, including the Liberian civil war, the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, South African apartheid, and the Indian Ocean slave trade, have passed under the TRC microscope. Usually praised as peacebuilding instruments, TRCs are based on the premise that investigating historical violence (seeking the truth) can be done in such a way as to clear the path toward consensus (reconciliation). And yet, the data from the global TRC wave does not bear this out. The idea that the revelation of facts—no matter how persuasive, or public rituals of suffering, contrition, and forgiveness—no matter how moving, will knit together a divided society seems almost unbearably naïve.

Why, then, do TRCs capture the imagination of such different constituencies? If truth commissions have not yet successfully extracted irrefutable truth or a clear reconciliation elsewhere, are they worthless in the US context? Not at all. Our understanding of TRC outcomes may be too limited: what if the peace that TRCs offer has little to do with the creation of consensus and everything to do with the revelation of cacophony? 

The TRC formula of public historical review privileges the voices of affected populations as the foundation for justice. I argue in my book that survivor testimonies aid us in mapping the scope and consequences of political violence. In accounting for the social, relational, economic, and psychic harms of past atrocity, survivors reveal that there are ruptures that do not only unleash suffering but create divergent experiences of citizenship. The revealed truth of a TRC on US soil might very well expose the gaps in our national historical consciousness. 

There may be no amount of public testimony that will persuade some among us to reject rape culture in all its forms. The justice pursued by the Lakota people for cultural genocide would quite likely be anathema to those who believe in 2018 that undocumented migration justifies separating children from their families. Trumpism aside, what are the self-evident truths for the families of Philando Castile and Michael Brown? And can these truths be shared by those who insist that “Blue Lives Matter”? 

The TRC cannot create cohesion across the faultlines drawn by violence, but it might help us more clearly view the histories that splinter the nation into different publics. Our grinding polarization is not a matter of bad faith, as so many pundits claim, but rather a matter of bad history. There are significant disparities within the national public’s knowledge of what has occurred on US soil and abroad; these create differences in our experiences of citizenship. These distances will not be closed by book learning, or graphs, or TED talks. Bad history has created different psychic, economic, and social worlds—and the value of TRCs may be to reveal these schisms. What quantity of evidence could persuade some to discard beliefs that threaten the foundations of their privilege? What ritual might rebuild the relationship between the state and those dispossessed of land, blood, and law? The common refrain that political consensus can be manufactured through a particular style (call it civility), or through savvy political rhetoric, or even through big-data research ignores the lesson that TRCs teach: violence makes and remakes the world.

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