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Renewing the Call for a Commission on Truth, Healing and Transformation

“We need a blueprint for a new society,” author, literary and political activist E. Ethelbert Miller told me when I proposed last year that president-elect Joe Biden establish a National Commission on Reconciliation within the first 100 days of his administration. Unfortunately, instead of creating an entity that could unite in communities throughout the country and reset citizens relationships with each other, when Biden took office, he charged the director of his Domestic Policy Council, Susan Rice, with implementing an equity and racial justice agenda throughout the government.

Speaking during a press conference, Rice said, “In every department and in all aspects of what we do we need to be [intentional] about infusing equity and racial justice.” She further told the Washington Post that “every agency will place equity at the core of their public engagement, their policy design and program delivery to ensure that government resources are reaching Americans of color and marginalized communities…”

That may be a great goal for the federal bureaucracy. I’m not sure it does much to truly unite the country, which Biden had said was one of his primary goals.

People of color, particularly African Americans who have been the consistent target of institutional racism, need more than bureaucratic directives to address decades of discrimination and the more recent oppressive regime led by former President Donald J. Trump. Moreover, whites who have suffered economic inequities or injustice also should have the opportunity to express their concerns. The benefits of a public forum for airing grievances and grieving are historic—review South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Fortunately, despite President Biden’s decision to bypass, at least at this stage, creation of a Commission, U.S. House of Representative Barbara Lee (CA 13) and U.S. Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) have not given up. Neither have I.

They recently reintroduced legislation calling for the establishment of the first United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation. As proposed, the Commission will examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color, and how our history impacts laws and policies today.

“Inequality, systemic racism, and white supremacy are at the heart of every crisis we’re facing right now – the COVID-19 public health crisis disproportionately impacting communities of color, the crises of police brutality and mass incarceration, the crisis of poverty, and much more,” said Congresswoman Lee. “We’ve made substantial progress, but the legacy of systemic racism clearly shows that the chains of slavery have yet to be broken.

This commission will educate and inform the public about the historical context for the current racial inequalities we witness each and every day, and usher in a moment of truth.”

“To realize our nation’s promise of being a place for liberty and justice for all, we must acknowledge and address the systemic racism and white supremacy that have been with us since our country’s founding and continue to persist in our laws, our policies and our lives to this day,” said Senator Booker. “The first ever congressional commission on truth, racial healing, and transformation will be a critical compliment to other urgent legislative efforts, like S.40, which would establish a commission on reparations. Together, these proposals are a necessary step in beginning to root out systemic racism in our institutions, creating proposals for addressing and repairing for past harm, and building a more just nation for every American.”

Citing, among other things, domestic terrorism evidenced by the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Gail C. Christopher, executive director of National Collaborative for Health Equity, said in a prepared statement that “racial healing is now imperative for protecting our national security.

“Unifying and healing America must be accomplished through [the Commission] - a coordinated multi-sector, intergovernmental effort, embedded in and led by local communities,” continued Christopher, noting that such an entity could “provide local leadership and diverse civic, civil and human rights organizational support at this critical time.”

While there appears to be broad support for the legislation, as I mentioned last year, any Commission cannot become a weapon against whites or against those who may not support reparations for African Americans. Rather it must be seen, in my view, as a path toward real unity or at the very least serious first steps for Americans to begin to conduct a serious conversation.

Certainly, there have been previous commissions. Leaders and activists are right, the time may be ripe for change—change that is long lasting and can result in that blueprint for a new society for which Miller has advocated.


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