Foreign Policy

As America Seeks Racial Justice, It Can Study From Overseas

The 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police ignited a once-in-a-generation racial justice protest movement in the United States. Black Lives Matter protestors demanded justice in multiple forms: acknowledgment of racial violence, accountability for perpetrators, reparations for victims, creation of memorials, and establishing legal reforms.

The combination of these policies—truth seeking, criminal justice, reparations, memorialization, and reform—is known internationally as transitional justice and has a long and successful history outside the United States. Transitional justice has been used in many countries to address human rights violations and other abuses, especially following authoritarian rule and armed conflict. But it is a model that can be used wherever violence and injustice have not been acknowledged and redressed.

Transitional justice starts with the recognition of past abuses by state and nonstate actors. The vehicle for this is usually a truth commission—an official inquiry separate from the criminal justice system that establishes the who, what, where, when, how, and why of abuses. The idea underlying commissions is that by clarifying the truth, countries can begin to repair past harms through transformative policies like reparations and institutional reforms.

Truth commissions have been used for decades in a wide variety of contexts. Well-known examples include Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, established in 1983 after the military dictatorship, and the celebrated South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in 1995 following apartheid. Other important examples are the 2008 Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the forced assimilation of Indigenous children through the Indian residential school system and the 2013 Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission on authoritarianism and government corruption.

Based on our professional expertise in transitional justice (one of us is a practitioner and the other is an academic), we believe that truth commissions can help the United States deal with structural racism and historical injustice in three ways. First, truth commissions can provide an authoritative narrative that recognizes the experiences of marginalized communities, notably people of color. Second, truth commissions can foster a constructive, forward-looking dialogue on race and racism in the nation. Third, truth commissions can help set an agenda for institutional transformation.

We’ve been tracking U.S. transitional justice plans and monitoring their progress over the past several years. Many plans exist, mostly with a local rather than national scope. U.S. cities—from Boston to Iowa City to San Francisco—and various states are seeking to confront issues like structural racism and systemic inequality in their communities through truth seeking and truth telling.

The question is whether this local focus can truly help transform the United States and, conversely, whether a national truth commission—as is currently being proposed—could succeed without the local dimension. We believe that by applying lessons from transitional justice plans abroad as well as previous attempts in the United States, civil society groups and policymakers can improve the coordination and impact of various racial justice initiatives, especially truth commissions.

Although there is a growing wave of local truth commissions in the United States, truth seeking around racial violence and injustice in U.S. cities and states isn’t altogether new. In 2004, for example, the community of Greensboro, North Carolina came together to examine the 1979 “Greensboro massacre,” during which neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan killed five labor organizers and injured at least 10 others. The testimonies of survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators helped the community to engage in long-overdue introspection and education—and launch a process of police reform. Recently, the Greensboro City Council also offered a formal apology to the survivors of the massacre.

In a similar fashion, the Wabanaki nations partnered with the state of Maine in 2013 to create the Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated separations of Indigenous children from their families and communities from 1978 onward. The commission produced a report detailing the many ways in which the separations tore the fabric of the Indigenous community. The truth-seeking process enabled an important reflection, as demonstrated by wide-ranging public debate and an award-winning documentary.

New truth commissions in the United States are set to address different abuses that took place over various time periods, but all of them focus on racial violence. For instance, a state-level commission established by the Maryland state legislature is researching racial terror lynchings between 1854 and 1933 to produce an authoritative record, formally apologize to the descendants of victims, and facilitate community reconciliation. For its part, the Truth and Healing Council in California will examine the history of Native Americans and state institutions to produce a holistic understanding of Indigenous experiences of harm, all with the goal of healing and reconciling communities to one another.

This turn to the local is striking because in most places around the world, truth commissions have been national in scope and narrative. They have sought to create new national narratives and establish authoritative historical accounts. As important as the creation of a national narrative is, it can sometimes overshadow local realities. Indeed, one lesson to learn is that national commissions have sometimes been unable to comprehensively recognize community experiences and address the need for transformation at the local level.

More recent truth-seeking processes around the world have therefore tried to place a greater emphasis on local communities. Brazil—which, like the United States, is a large country with a federal system—offers important lessons in this regard. From 2011 to 2014, the National Truth Commission (CNV) examined state crimes during the country’s military regime, which lasted from 1964 to 1988. At the same time, Brazilian state legislatures, city councils, and even academic institutions created smaller commissions to run parallel to the national one. In time, the CNV struck agreements of cooperation with 29 local commissions. The subnational and national commissions worked together to produce a rich and detailed national narrative, borne out of direct cooperation with communities affected by violence.

Colombia followed a similar approach with the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition, created as part of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the armed opposition following a decades-long civil conflict. The commission has an explicit mandate to develop an understanding of the local dynamics of the armed conflict. On Colombia’s Pacific coast, African-descendent and Indigenous communities have created a local commission to run parallel to and in collaboration with the national one.

Local commissions in the United States may support and perhaps even herald nationwide initiatives, just like in Brazil and Colombia. Currently, there is proposed legislation in the U.S. Congress for two national truth commissions that could both support and be supported by local mechanisms.

The first bill, proposed by Rep. Barbara Lee and Sen. Cory Booker, would create a Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation to examine the country’s long history of racial abuse, propose new national narratives, and set off change. The second bill, proposed by Rep. Deb Haaland and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would create a Truth and Healing Commission to examine Native American boarding school policy, which was designed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into the dominant culture.

Regrettably, neither of these initiatives have Republican support. But the proliferation of local commissions may change this situation. By creating a critical mass—and demonstrating objectivity, independence, and diversity—local commission reports and testimonies from affected communities could provide momentum and legitimacy to nationwide efforts. Hopefully, such a powerful chorus would resonate with lawmakers, consolidate support among Democrats, and provide Republicans an incentive toward at least some degree of cooperation.

As in Brazil and Colombia, local U.S. commissions could raise public awareness, cultivate citizen support, and sustain momentum among leaders. This work would also provide any future national commission with a pool of hundreds of trained advocates and researchers. Converging local and regional truth commissions would also facilitate narrative-making. Imagine a coordinated system, where commissions participate in constructive dialogue, sharing information upward, downward, and across so the national narrative reflects the depth of local realities and local narratives are put into a broader context.

If truth commissions have been able to help countries overcome the painful legacy of authoritarian rule and civil war, they may help heal a United States beset by white supremacy, ethnonationalism, and individual and systemic racism. U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris should seriously consider the idea of a truth commission—and transitional justice more generally—and create one or more commissions by executive action if the Congress doesn’t act. The many successful examples of healing and transformation around the world show it’s an idea whose time has come.

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