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14 October 2009

Truth and Reconciliation as a Response to American Segregation?

This is a guest post by Merrian Brooks. Merrian is a student at the Ohio University School of Osteopathic Medicine.
Slavery was fully abolished with the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865 in the United States. Far from being the end of oppression, 1865 marked the beginning of both law-based (de jure) and societal (de facto) segregation that was not truly changed until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are established to illustrate the truth using amnesty as a tool for enhancing the likelihood that that truth will in fact come to light. The idea being that truth will help heal wounds and thus give the victims symbolic retribution that will allow them to coexist with their apologetic neighbors. Had there been a TRC in the US, what form would it take? This article attempts to examine the implications of a mock TRC as a response to American segregation.

First, one has to acknowledge that segregation was not a political response to maintain power; it was rather the rule and not the exception. Laws stated that one drop of African ancestral blood made you black, and separate facilities were legal as long as they were of similar quality to what the majority was given. These laws were reflections of what the majority considered a fact. How does our mock TRC address these situations where the law denied rights by assimilating the ‘truths’ of the majority? In this case, the law eventually acknowledged a societal rights violation. With Brown vs. The board of education of Topeka Kansas decision of 1955, the chief justice that wrote the majority statement conceded, “separate facilities are inherently unequal”.  This landmark case acted as the ‘TRC’ for de jure segregation, forcing the majority to live up to its human rights ideals. This decision paved the way for the numerous statutory changes favoring integration, and provided hope and comfort to those who suffered under the laws of segregation. Though de facto segregation still has not completely disappeared, minority populations now have the legal support to live, work, and be educated amongst the white majority.

Next, the period of segregation that preceded the Civil Rights act was wrought with examples of violence and murder of blacks that involved little to no punishment by the law. In this case, there were several alleged conspiracies involving law enforcement (who were sometimes the perpetrators), non-governmental groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and other private citizens.  These groups would murder, bomb, hang, or otherwise terrorize black people or neighborhoods. When these crimes occurred, all white juries were purposely selected and those who committed the crimes acquitted. There are several examples of this including the story of Emmitt Till, the four little girls killed in a church bombing, or the violence against anti-Klan demonstrators in Greensboro, North Carolina. Our mock TRC would have to bring forth as many as would come to expose the details of these particular atrocities. However, simple apologies for the deaths of four little girls who were killed in Sunday school would fall on deaf ears without a true promise of justice. Without jail sentences, or at least hefty civil fines, the TRC would not contribute to reconciliation. I believe this because the tragedy attached to the memory of these incidents lies just as strongly in the systematic denial of justice as it does in the barbaric acts themselves. This is where our TRC would fail most significantly. With amnesty as a tool, truth comes at the high prices of possible forgiveness of true crimes.

A TRC in response to the Greensboro Massacre was started in 2005 with significant support from the local black community. This TRC discovered the details of the massacre and publicized the complicity of law enforcement. One important feature contributed to the success of this commission; that is that justice had already been served.  Originally, an all white jury acquitted all of the whites that had been involved in the murders. Six years later a civil suit found the same men guilty, awarding $350,000 in damages. The point of the TRC in Greensboro was to discover the details of that day, particularly the complicity of police in the crime. I wonder the impact this TRC would have had, had reparations not already been paid.

I firmly believe that Black Americans do not need a TRC. For slavery it would be far too complex, and in some ways a totally inappropriate tool for multi-generational oppression. The Civil Rights Act acknowledged the truth of the crimes and handicaps blacks faced due to racism and segregation and provided reconciliation by allowing blacks to move on without fear of any law based barriers to their pursuits in life. I see in my life and those around me that the many acts that lead to integration and protection from hate crimes, has done at least as much as any truth and reconciliation could ever do.


Siphokazi said...

indeed the TRC is an imperfect method, definately not a one size fits all for the quest for peace and reconcliation in different societies! Yet,after reading "Meeting challenges in the US Education; striving for success in a diverse society" by Johnson (2008), where she states that by year 2020 its expected that African America, Latino, Asian and Native American students will compose about 66% of the student population, making them the overall majority. I wondered how prepared the US nation is for this change, especially with the continued achievement gap between the majority and minority students. What these statistic say is that the face of America is changing, shifting to becoming the face of the former desciminated minority.

The alarming 50% drop out rates in the schools in the south side of Chicago are but one of the urgent issues that need to be addressed. otherwise, what will prevent the current minority which is the futere majority to rise up against the elite as we have seen in the civil wars in Africa?

S'khu said...

I am interested in the true statistically supported numbers for true African American students by 2020. Why mix with other ethnic groups that are rapidly growing already. The issue of African American is debatable because there are more African moving to the US than during the transatlantic slave trade. Just because you are an African and US citizen it doesn't make you an African American. I believe if not careful our brothers and sisters in America will be replaced by kids born from African parents who have gained US citizenship. If you talk about the south side of Chicago think about those drop outs and their ethnicity. In my observation our sisters and brothers will continue to be marginalized and they will be a minority of the minority even in 2020. Article for food of thought:

Dr. Black Swan said...

Hi thanks for the comments. History does not support any reason to fear any uprising against the elite. The mass violence we've seen thus far in the history of the US is less related to the elite having a monopoly over the money, jobs, resources, and has usually resulted from violence against Blacks. The most recent "Race Riots" of our generation have been in response murders of Blacks by white law enforcement (example Cincinnati 2001, LA 1992).

This issue of Black American achievement at this point is less a matter of numbers (being a numeric minority) and more a matter of poverty. The students who have the lowest achievement across the board are very likely to be poor. In rural predominantly white appalachia disturbingly high drop-out rates, teen pregnancy rates, etc are just as much an issue as they are in black urban communities like the south side of Chicago. These populations have historically been ignored because of their low amount of political leverage. Poverty does disproportionately affect the post-slave blacks in this country (legacy of slavery). This, in my opinion, is what needs to be addressed. As more Blacks become professionals, and teachers, and administrators there will be more people willing to invest in increasing the quality of schools, mentorship programs, etc for those slipping through the cracks. Each year more minorities achieve great things despite the percentages. The more that happens the more likely it is that those populations (understanding the legacy of oppression) will work hard to make things better. As I'm sure it is in South Africa things don't change overnight, but each year more and more blacks are achieving and working to bring the rest of us out of the hardships we have suffered.

Interestingly, The overall graduation rate in IL for all students is 79%. For Black Students in IL it is 77% overall (even with rates from the South side included) That is compared with a 92% grad rate by white students and ... a 75% grad rate of low income (all races). http://www2.edtrust.org/NR/rdonlyres/5AEDABBC-79B7-47E5-9C66-7403BF76C3E2/0/GradMatters.pdf.

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