The covered statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Tom Perriello, a Democrat from Virgina, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2009 to 2011 and served as a special U.S. envoy to the African Great Lakes from 2015 to 2016. He is head of a Democratic political action committee in Virginia.

Virginia is the birthplace of American democracy, but it is also the birthplace of American slavery. We often hear our history described as a steady progress toward equality, but in reality, each generation that has pushed for progress has faced violence from those who seek to preserve a system of racial hierarchy.

In the 19th century, emancipation and Reconstruction sparked lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. In the early 20th, the emergence of a black middle class and an influx of immigration sparked Lost Cause Confederate revisionism, eugenics-based immigration quotas and the firing of African Americans from the federal workforce. In our own time, the election of our first black president unleashed a wave of white supremacism, including in my home town of Charlottesville, where armed protesters whom I interviewed last month described former president Barack Obama as a “national embarrassment” that they needed to “cleanse.”

It is time we break this cycle. Virginia should establish a statewide Truth and Reconciliation Commission on race that could bend this endless loop of progress and backlash into an arc of justice.

Such commissions are not just conversations. They are systematic, nonpartisan public processes for establishing a common understanding of our history, evaluating how we publicly memorialize that history and tackling policy reforms that address the painful legacies of our past. Successful commissions spend a few years convening leading historians, community and moral leaders, former elected officials, and artists. They work across deep fault lines of conflicting narratives to establish common ground and common facts.

Many great nations — including Germany, Argentina, South Africa and Canada — have used similar strategies to forge a path forward after periods of violence, division and repression. Initiatives here in the United States have proved promising as well, including the Greensboro process in 2000 to review a 1979 attack in which members of the KKK killed five people in broad daylight and walked free.

Civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson has been building the South's first memorial to lynching as a teachable, interactive engagement with our past, and several localities in Virginia have launched Hope in the Cities initiatives. This year, after neo-Nazis held their first tiki-torch rally at the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, I issued a call for a comprehensive Virginia commission on race as part of my campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor, understanding from my past work on transitional justice abroad that hate left unchecked tends to escalate.

Much attention has been paid to the question of monuments, and these are often a component of such commissions. How we decide to commemorate and celebrate our history — and who gets a voice in the decision — speaks volumes about our present and our future. While I support the removal of most Confederate monuments, the process by which these decisions are made is as important as the outcome. The highly charged debate cannot be avoided; the question is whether this discussion should be done through a shared, historically grounded process or as isolated (and often reactionary) proxy battles in the public parks and streets of our cities.

But successful reconciliation looks well beyond monuments to the inequalities and cultural divides produced by history, including statutes on housing, education and criminal codes. It must not just be top-down but also provide a space for painful memories to be aired.

We saw a glimpse of how this process can help — and what its absence risks — in the first City Council meeting in Charlottesville after the violence. The meeting was messy and chaotic, but far less so than when we provide no such forum. Those who suffered at the hands of the forces of hate and breakdowns in protections from state authorities needed a forum to have their stories heard and to demand accountability. Reconciliation is not easy or pain-free, but it does provide an outlet for healing.

Virginia's history is full of contradictions. We hosted the capital of the Confederacy, but we were also the first state to elect an African American governor. We produced the Declaration of Independence but also shuttered public schools before allowing integration. The modern Klan rallied in Charlottesville with local support, but I was proud to the point of tears to see them massively outnumbered by Virginians of all races, faiths, generations and orientations standing up for racial justice and an inclusive commonwealth.

From tragedy, Virginia can lead again. We can heal through a statewide process that brings gravitas, methodology and inclusion to some of the most difficult questions our society must answer. These are the questions about who we are as Americans, how we got here and where we go from here. And they are about whether every American has a voice in crafting the answer.