DEMOCRATIC presidential nominee Joe Biden’s call to end the violence and his pick of Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate has won him praise, particularly among people of color. That political dance alone won’t reunite America, however.
If he wants to stimulate lasting foundational change, he will need an aggressive agenda for ending racism. In the first 100 days of his administration, he should establish a National Reconciliation Commission.
Without such a plan, he may miss his moment as he and President Barack Obama did in 2009. Back then, the duo were only a few months into their tenure when Obama publicly asserted that the Cambridge, Mass. police Sgt. James Crowley “acted stupidly” for arresting Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. outside his own home, even after proving he lived there and wasn’t trying to break in as a white neighbor thought.
“What I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately," Obama also said at the time.
That could have been the opening salvo for reforming the country’s criminal justice system. It could have been the hammer to the walls of institutional racism.
Instead, concerned about the national controversy his comments ignited, Obama invited Gates and Crowley to the White House. Along with Biden, they gathered in the Rose Garden for what was dubbed “the beer summit.”
Obama later declared the affair a “teachable moment.” Except, no teaching (or learning) really took place: There wasn’t any effort to examine negative assumptions about black men. There wasn’t an exploration of the insidious nature of systemic racism brought into clear focus with the arrest of a black man who had the right to mess with his own front door.
Harris’ appointment, which follows massive protests of the murder of George Floyd, an African American man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin bring yet another teachable moment. Will Biden allow it to slip away?
Let’s hope not.
Race is a complex and complicated thing. It is mostly a false construct, used very early in this country’s development for economic purpose. It was designed to deliberately draw divisions, separating low-income or poor whites, some of whom were indentured servants, from blacks brought to America as enslaved people. Examining those features, and the myths created within that context, is comparable to peeling the proverbial onion, replete with streaming tears.
“The process of disentanglement is made even more difficult by language—the way we use it without care and precision,” said author E. Ethelbert Miller. “Language doesn't tie our hands. Instead it ties our minds."
For example, said Miller, there’s the fact that now deceased U.S. Senator John McCain adopted a child from Bangladesh. “Did that not make his a family of color?” asked Miller, a former chair of the board of directors of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank located in Washington, DC.
“That is so complicated, I might as well begin to teach myself Braille or some other language,” he joked. “We like to speak a certain way because we think it gives us sight, but at times it blinds us.”
The layers and labyrinths have repeatedly caused us to miss opportunities to talk, to engage, to change our thinking and our vision. Gone was the moment following the U.S. Civil War. Without President Abraham Lincoln, the country leapt from Reconstruction into Black Codes and later Jim Crow, particularly in the south, clearing the path for unfettered expansion of white supremacy, typified by daylight beatings and lynchings of black people while building and strengthening institutional racism. No sooner had the landmark Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act been signed into law did the heat begin to cool around advancing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a society where a person is judged by his or her humanity—not skin color.
There may have been hundreds of thousands of people of varying races and generations in the street carrying Black Lives Matters or Defund the Police signs during marches and rallies over the past several months, but was that an indication of a conversion of the American public? Did people spill into the streets because of the absence of anything better to do during a global pandemic that had kept them prisoners in their own homes? After the coronavirus vaccine begins to be distributed, will people go back to their jobs, their schools, their favorite restaurants and bars and forget George Floyd, the way they did Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and the thousands of people of color who died while in police custody?
Beyond a few symbolic changes, will activists and national leaders fail, yet again, to instigate a substantive and sustained conversation about how to end racism and racial discrimination and how to ignite true reform of foundational institutions while reconciling the country’s diverse population, where we appreciate differences but embrace with passion and compassion our common ground?
“At some point, this particular burst of protests will end, as it tragically ended for the Black Panthers, as it tragically ended for H. Rap Brown,” said Nnamdi, a one-time Marxist and Black Cultural Nationalist. “How can this lead to a more constructive path?”
The country desperately needs a guided reconciliation process, especially considering the racial and class damage done by President Donald J Trump. Through his words and actions, he has created an environment, much like what the country witnessed post-civil war, that has openly embraced racism and discrimination under the guise of free speech. Trump is as responsible for the current violence and Floyd’s death as those four Minneapolis police officers.
Altering the tone and tenor of the country can’t be left to happenstance. Thoughtful, deliberate action is required.
“We need a blueprint for a new society,” said Miller.
Biden could be the architect. The National Reconciliation Commission, well-funded, properly organized and sufficiently staffed, could begin to address the legacy of racism, which may be man-made but whose traumatic effects are undeniable.
We see the indisputable impact of institutional racism and classism in public-school systems—K-12. Each year, young, black, low-income children receive substandard education even when those systems are operated by people who look like them. We see it in housing policies that keep poor and working-class families locked in neighborhoods devoid of opportunities and resources critical to their success in the larger society. We see it in the design of employment training programs whose options are limited to industries that are not growing or positions in developing industries that do not permit African Americans or people of color the chance to attain upper-level management positions. We see racism’s impact in healthcare insurance practices that too often deny low-income families and people of color services that would prevent them from being victims of a disease like COVID-19.
Reconciliation can open the door to collective healing for both perpetrator and victim. It can set the course for eroding or completely eliminating policies that perpetuate race and class discrimination.
U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat who represents California’s 13th District, introduced in June a resolution calling for the creation of a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Commission. The intent is to “properly acknowledge, memorialize, and be a catalyst for progress toward jettisoning the belief in a hierarchy of human value, embracing our common humanity and permanently eliminating persistent racial inequities.”
In her resolution, Lee not only cites the oppressive treatment of blacks in America, but she identifies discrimination against Native American tribes, Mexican immigrants, Latino Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and the Kingdom of Hawaii.
“We must address these racial issues with a full understanding of the emotional, psychological, and economic impact racial injustice has caused our communities for generations,” said Rep. Karen Bass (CA-37), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “At this pivotal moment in our country, we must heed the national outcry for change and respond with comprehensive legislation to get us there.”
Separately, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, and The Grassroots Law Project have pledged to form a Truth and Justice Reconciliation Commission that will explore police and prosecutorial misconduct and racial inequities within the justice system. Rachel Rollins, the district attorney for Suffolk County, Massachusetts, told WBUR that the commission will include community input and will consider how to “reimagine what the interaction between law enforcement and certain communities can be.
“We are going to do the hard work to document. To atone,” Rollins said. “And I believe that we’re going to move forward and be able to solve more homicides or get more involvement from communities because they’ll finally feel they’ve been respected and acknowledged.”
Any reconciliation commission must bring Americans together without regard to race, class, ethnicity, gender, or history of wrongdoing. It shouldn’t be a talkfest or a wicked round of finger-pointing. If measurable change is to occur, however, victims must be provided the opportunity to tell their stories, to share their pain.
“It will give people the opportunity to have buy-in from the system into the system without constantly having to fight,” said Nnamdi, agreeing that such a commission is critical.
“It provides the opportunity for people to voice their concerns in an environment where they won’t be shot down,” continued Nnamdi, adding that their stories will be part of the relevant historical records, as they were South Africa.
Equally important, everyone who participates in the process must be willing to seek or give forgiveness depending on the roles they have played in life—in their homes, their communities, or the larger national square. Forgiveness always begins the cleansing process. Sometimes, forgiveness must be requested multiple times to restore trust, to create balance, to sketch a blueprint for a new society.
Yes, I know there have been previous efforts. Reports line shelves; they have gone untouched, except maybe for an anniversary or two.
President Lyndon B Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder in 1967, when it seemed then, as now, that half the country, particularly urban centers, were rioting and on fire. That group, chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner Jr., came to be known as the Kerner Commission. Its 1968 report asserted that the country was “moving toward two societies: one black, one white—separate and unequal. Its partial findings were not much different than what we know caused the Black Lives Matter Movement and its allies to take to the streets for weeks: abusive police treatment of people of color, particularly African Americans, and institutional racism, both of which have helped sustain poverty and economic inequity.
“Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites, whether the Negroes lived in the area where the riot took place or outside it,” the Commission concluded in its report. “Negroes were twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to be in unskilled and service jobs. Negroes averaged 70 percent of the income earned by whites and were more than twice as likely to be living in poverty. Although housing cost Negroes relatively more, they had worse housing—which was three times as likely to be overcrowded and substandard.”
By the time President Bill Clinton established his Race Initiative in 1993, appointing the famous black historian, John Hope Franklin, as the chair to that advisory committee, not much had changed. Franklin and his team conducted field research, hearing evidence from actual citizens. The recommendations from that group echoed those of the Kerner Commission: “mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems; aim those programs for high impact in the immediate future in order to close the gap between promise and performance; and undertake new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto and weakens our society.”
Rather than see those previous efforts as failures, I consider them foundational. Both Kerner and Franklin offered a vision for how the country could succeed. Timid and distracted leadership prevented the implementation--although, in fairness, there has been some progress.
This moment in which we find ourselves now demands radical, creative, uncompromising transformation.
President Biden can achieve that goal only if he sees the reconciliation of the country and its citizens as synonymous with the repair of the economy, with ending student loans, with eliminating segregated housing, with protecting the environment. As he establishes The National Reconciliation Commission, he must ensure that people at all levels of the country are engaged, not just politicians, celebrities, and academics but also average ordinary folks—people who often are racism’s victims.
Further, the Commission cannot be some six-month project, ending in yet another report. There should be an office in the White House focused on this issue throughout Biden’s tenure, with adequate funding and staffing to initiate a national effort.
There must be systematic data collection, documenting evidence of institutional racism and its effects on individuals and communities. Nonprofit organizations with deep connections in neighborhood communities must be invited to lead the discussion—not just with Blacks speaking to other Blacks, but with whites, Hispanics, and African Americans discussing how racism has affected them personally; the kind of change they would like to see; and how they can implement that vision of themselves as members of the Beloved Community that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr frequently described. Artists must have a role presenting visual creations, staging plays, or choreographing collaborative works that advance the notion of common ground. The commission should also include faith-based organizations. There could be (and probably should be) a “National Day of Reconciliation.”
This year, my own nonprofit organization launched a National Reconciliation Week: For Self, Family, and Community. Our program could certainly connect with other similar events, creating synergy and a network of national reconcilers.
The Commission’s goal can’t be merely to get a few laws introduced at the federal or state level. The job won’t be done because a few states or counties have “reimagined” their police departments or instituted less discriminatory housing policies.
The Kerner Commission recommended steps that could be adopted by Biden and his team: creation of neighborhood action task forces, establishment of a comprehensive grievance-response mechanism in order to bring all public agencies under public scrutiny; deliberate involvement of inner-city residents in the formulation of public policy and the implementation of programs affecting them through improved political representation, creation of institutional channels for community action, expansion of legal services, and legislative hearings on problems in low-income neighborhoods, among other things.
The most important message that must be conveyed is one I have constantly repeated in my work: “Reconciliation is not a destination; it is a journey.” Nothing will be resolved in one month or one year. The question that must be considered is whether measurable improvements are being made, particularly in the lives of the people who have been most victimized by racial discrimination, and whether we are able to document the crumbling of institutionalized racism.
Each improvement yields its own results. Those must be reconciled with the past and woven into a new vision of America—a vision that is ever changing but that represents our highest values and our greatest humanity.
Jonetta Rose Barras, author of the upcoming book “Twelve Steps to Reconciliation,” has been involved in self, family, and community reconciliation for two decades.