The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The best way to respond to our history of racism? A Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and fellow commissioners listen to testimony from witnesses during the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that opened in East London on April 15, 1996. (Philip Littleton/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is professor and chair of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University.

The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks are the latest in a continuing pattern of violence inflicted by state agents and citizens, mostly white, against Americans of African descent. Their deaths have stoked strong denunciations and calls for justice and change, to do something, anything, to put an end to such incidents.

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

But to date, there has been very little interest in real change from the highest levels of political leadership. Through executive order, the president has issued modest police reforms, and congressional legislation has already stalled. To create lasting change in the United States, we must do more than reform the police. We must reconcile with our history — with race and with racism. And to do that, there is no better model to guide us than South Africa’s.

We are at a fork in the road of the kind that made South Africa, during the last days of apartheid, opt for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission model as the preferred path to a new society. South Africa chose to enter into the record the ugly history of deprivation, violence and denial of humanity of black people perpetrated by the white-dominated state and other groups within it, so that no one could reasonably disavow what happened or claim ignorance of what was done in their name and to their benefit.

Every state agent who sought forgiveness from the commission had to give a full account of the crimes they committed as state agents in granular detail and identify their victims’ names, educating the population about how low their society had sunk while apartheid lasted. That is how the truth played out; South Africa now has a full record of this history, for not only South Africans but all who desire access.

This same process is what the United States needs in order to confront the truth about what it did to black people throughout its history.

The United States has faced many past forks in the road. At its inception, the country could have gone full steam ahead in building the utopia promised by its founding fathers. Instead, it chose slavery. It had another turning point at the conclusion of the Civil War when it chose white reconciliation at the expense of full citizenship for black compatriots. There was yet another opportunity at the conclusion of the Jim Crow era; again, the United States elided full citizenship for black Americans by taking the easy path of trying to institute progress through litigation that is constantly being challenged and reversed.

At every step, the United States refused to acknowledge the wrong inflicted on its black citizens. But the nation is once again at a decision point.

We are dealing with a mind-set — including among nonwhite immigrants — that was constructed in a time of slavery and used to justify the dehumanization of black Americans. Black Americans and we, their immigrant cousins, are never routinely considered to have a place in America’s space. Our citizenship has never been full nor taken for granted: it is always asterisked. This mind-set must be the subject of a national conversation.

What changes do you hope will come out of protests and debates about police and race? Write to The Post.

We needed an amendment to the Constitution to secure our citizenship even when we were born on U.S. soil and nonblack immigrants were routinely admitted. We had to have our equality with others litigated in courts. We had to have our right to live anywhere we want and can afford restated and guaranteed by additional legislation and court judgments. We have had our right to vote unimpeded periodically subject to renewal by Congress. And we must continue to suffer the indignities of having our fellow citizens act as if only we have problems.

Over the past century, other societies realized they had wronged segments of their populace either through racial discrimination, genocide or military misrule. They accepted that they had fallen short of what kind of society they desired to be, and that they had to reconcile with the undeserving victims of their deeds. Reconciliation required acknowledging and atoning for the wrong done — asking for their victims’ forgiveness while resolving never to repeat the wrongs and working to restore their victims to full humanity as fellow citizens.

The United States and South Africa share similar histories of denying the humanity of black people. In South Africa, there is collective sharing of the burden of what the country did to its black citizens and understanding that black South Africans deserve to be made whole if South Africa is to become the nation of its modern founders’ dreams. South Africa is a long way from realizing this dream, and the reluctance of white South Africa to reciprocate the generosity of the black majority is scandalous. But the foundation laid by the truth remains an indispensable starting point.

To become the perfect union its founders intended, the United States must make its black citizens whole, without legal equivocations or constitutional hair-splitting. That is the ultimate argument for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in our land. It is the precondition for a different future.

Read more:

Paul Butler: It is not easy to convict cops. So start with structural reforms.

Jonathan Capehart: These interviews about anti-racism help explain America’s relationship with race

Christine Emba: Statues honoring heroes of a racist past are finally falling. What should replace them?

Michele L. Norris: George and Martha Washington enslaved 300 people. Let’s start with their names.

Eugene Robinson: Trump might go down in history as the last president of the Confederacy

Tom Perriello: Virginia needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on race