The past several years have been marked by incivility at the highest levels of our government, growth in hate group membership, and heightened levels of racially motivated violence. As a result, there has been a surge in calls for the nation to create a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Those calls have grown louder as the nation has witnessed a steady parade of police killings of unarmed people of color. These events serve to remind the nation of the persistence of systemic racial discrimination and how it impacts the health, wealth, and peaceful existence of people of color in America.

The design of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one of the most critical decision points that a community or government can make. The nation’s experience with federal truth commissions (or similarly constituted processes) is rather limited, and the outcomes have been mixed (for example, see the federal inquiry into Japanese internment and the Tuskegee study inquiry). In those limited instances, the federal government was successful in directing compensation to some victims; however, critics assert that they failed to adequately compensate victims.1 The “truth” finding process undertaken in these examples arguably failed to sufficiently address the needs of the respective communities (a critique of most commissions).2

At the local level, there are a number of Truth and Reconciliation initiatives that have commenced in the past two decades. These include the more widely known Greensboro T&R Commission, the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth, and Reconciliation Commission, and the Boston Busing and Desegregation Project. Although each of these succeeded in creating a more accurate record of their respective events by elevating the voices of the victims, in many ways they ultimately failed at gaining wider acceptance of the findings, and some failed to garner support and action from official government bodies.3 Other locally created commissions in the United States have encountered similar outcomes.

Years of research on T&R commissions shows that there are serious limitations of the past initiatives in the U.S. at both the federal and local levels. Likewise, owing to a range of factors, including the unique nature of the US system of governance and the geographic nature of the nation’s past transgressions, international examples are limited in their applicability to the US. Yet, the United States is in desperate need of a Truth and Reconciliation process to begin to repair the damage of the past and to set the nation on the firm ground towards creating a more inclusive and prosperous country. As such, we have identified a set of suggested principles for consideration to inform the many critical decision points when undertaking these processes.

1 Rainey, J. 1998. U.S. Apologizes to Internees. Los Angeles Times. June 13, 1998. Retrieved March 15, 2021

2 For examples see research on Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Haiti, and the failure to launch a commission in Bosnia.

3 The Greensboro Commission offers a clear example of this. The process was not fully supported by the local government initially, nor fully forthcoming with information during the inquiry. In the aftermath, the report was not wholeheartedly endorsed by the local government and significant segments of the population. See Wesley and Joya’s 2008 book – Learning from Greensboro: Truth and Reconciliation in the United States – for a full assessment.

Suggested Principles to Guide Truth Commissions

1. The promotion of opportunities for active participation and leadership at each level of our community.

There are strong arguments to be made for a federal level T&R commission, as is the case for local level commissions because of the varied ways in which racism manifests itself in local customs and institutions. The United States could undertake a hybrid approach to Truth and Reconciliation. Leaders could lay the groundwork with a federal initiative, and support the formation of local commissions. It is imperative that we engage in the national conversation to lend the necessary sense of importance and weight to the proceedings. Given the localized and unique character of racism in America, it is critically important to create a process that allows for the local ownership of commissions and to encourage the commitment of local actors in the form of tangible resources. The federal government should provide not only technical assistance but also financial resources for localities. This funding should be made available as matching funds to communities based on a scale that considers the financial capacity of a given community. Like the other commissions in the nation’s history, the charge should be to present a set of policy recommendations to address the issues under examination (for both the federal and local commissions).

2. Recognize the intrinsic relationship between past injustices and ongoing harms

It is paramount that the commission embraces a focus beyond a narrow concentration on identifying and documenting the experiences of actual “living” survivors of harm. The widespread and embedded nature of racism in America necessitates a more universal approach. Moreover, the historical nature of the nation’s problems characterized by a failure to address them over the course of the past 155 years (since slavery ended), makes a “living survivor only” focus impossible. As such, the nation’s predicament requires a thorough reckoning of its past and an examination of the evolving institutional complexity of racism in America and its ongoing harm. This does not mean that survivor testimony should be abandoned, however. For example, documented narratives from the formerly enslaved are powerful indictments of our systems of oppression. Similarly, direct descendants and survivors of more recent acts of state-sponsored racism should be a critical part of the process. The recent example of North Carolina’s eugenics program that sterilized over 7,000 people is instructive. There are nearly 3,000 survivors of that program alive today and their legislative testimony was a powerful indictment of a brutal and inhumane system.4

3. Commitment to the enactment of policies that address the harms illuminated by the inquiry

Communities should proceed with a process that situates repairing the harms as a necessary and critical component of the process. Addressing the harms can take many forms. We are making monumental shifts in our thinking regarding what role the government, financial institutions, and other leaders should play in moving our nation forward in addressing past injustices. The topic has gained traction in the mainstream dialogue and is championed by leaders across a number of sectors. Across the globe, there is a clear pattern of the failure of commissions to fully address the harms illuminated by their work and very little institutional accountability.5 Domestically, communities should examine a range of mechanisms appropriate to their level of authority and capacity. Logically, it is necessary to understand the complexities of harm before wrestling with how to address given harm. Given that reality, truth-finding should ideally take precedence in terms of a sequence of events.

4. Commitment to the highest standards of evidence-based inquiry

Most commissions have been created because of a precipitating event. However, the complex nature of racism in America necessitates a more intricate inquiry than past commission examples offer. The closest parallel at the national level is the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, a commission that had a similarly broad scope (beyond a single event) and relied on a replicable task force structure to examine specific focus areas.6 Like the Commission on Violence, federal agencies should be charged with specific responsibilities to aid in the inquiries related to their scope of influence (e.g., inquiries by HUD and USDA regarding their agencies’ racist histories). Similarly, municipal agencies should be tasked to undertake their own inquiries at the state and local levels. Implementing agencies such as housing authorities, police forces, and social service agencies have historically been complicit in the execution of harms through the administration of racist policies. In addition, the commissions’ fact-finding and deliberations should be done in partnership with the social scientists and historians. The Kerner Commission failed to adequately collaborate with its social scientist partners, who were eventually sidelined. And the nearly 50-year suppression of their original draft report (The Harvest of American Racism) was the result of that political moment.7

5. Distributed leadership and accountability

In addition to the critical decision points set forth above, decisions will need to be made at a national level regarding which government entity should take the lead role in the process. The Kerner Commission, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, and a number of others offer some insights into how a Truth and Reconciliation Commission could be structured. While a congressionally created commission (like the 9/11 Commission) would have the benefit of subpoena powers, in light of the public’s perception of Congress, we recommend a presidentially impaneled commission that has congressional participation. Like Kerner, it should feature federal government representatives (executive and congressional), along with leaders from state and local government, industries, and major nonprofit organizations. Although time-limited, a presidential commission may have greater legitimacy given the current political climate. Moreover, the time-limited nature may be of benefit to the nation in that it would have a defined end date and force an expedient but comprehensive process. Overall, it is critical that the process reflects racial diversity in its composition, openness, bipartisanship, expediency, practicality, and a commitment to a process as free from the taint of political ideology as possible.

At the local level, there are several lessons to be learned from communities like Greensboro, N.C. regarding the importance of properly structuring the commission, its relationship with government bodies, who have appointing authority, and who should be on a commission. Like a federal commission, local commissions should reflect the diversity of the community with respect to race, gender, ethnicity, community sector, age, etc.

6. Technological embracement in all its forms

The media played a prominent role in the process relative to the South African Commission. Televising the proceedings allowed the public to benefit from the educational aspects of the proceedings.8 In the U.S., the nation is splintered into isolated bubbles of influence, each with its own set of facts and divergent realities. Therefore, it is imperative that the Commission take seriously the role of the media and technology platforms in challenging and correcting errors in the historical record of the country’s experience of race and lay the foundation for a common understanding of our past and present. Thought should be given to how best to integrate the media players and tech platforms constructively (as opposed to destructively) into the different phases of the Commission’s work such as investigations, official proceedings, interviews, and publication of the finding.

7. Valuing multiple modes of truth

Lastly, the Commission should be amenable to embracing multiple methods of inquiry and presentation of its activities. To avoid the pitfalls of other failed efforts, it is imperative that the commission avoid the narrow pursuit of truth as merely a “product,” (written report) and commit to truth-seeking as a process.9 Moreover, the typical reading of testimony and Q&A may not be the best model to rely on for the structure of information review and public consumption. A truly comprehensive inquiry would ideally incorporate each of the four types of “truth” including official fact-finding (statistics and data), the narrative truth of individual experiences (e.g. testimony from survivors of atrocities), the truth of actual dialogue, and restorative truth that contextualizes facts with history, culture, and politics.10

4 The Governor’s Task Force to Determine the Method Of Compensation for Victims of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board. 2011. Preliminary Report to the Governor of the State of North Carolina.

5 Globally, the focus has been on compensation within the context of international law. However, in the case of the US, international law has rarely been used as a guidepost for determining domestic action.

6 1969 Report on the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.

7 Shellow. R. 2018. The Harvest of American Racism: The Political Meaning of Violence in the Summer of 1967. University of Michigan Press

8 Verdoolaege, A. 2005. Media Representations of The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Their Commitment to Reconciliation. Journal of African Cultural Studies. Vol.17, No.2. pp.181-199

9 Beth Rushton. (2006). Truth and reconciliation? The experience of Truth Commissions. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 60:1, 125-141

10 Ensign, O. 2001. Speaking Truth to Power: An Analysis of American Truth-Telling Efforts vis-à-vis the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.