May 31, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Is it Time for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States?

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George Floyd died on May 26 at the knee of a Minneapolis Police Department officer whose casualness as life slowly went out of a writhing Floyd must discomfit any human. This happened while we were still processing the news of the death of Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of a father-son duo in Brunswick, Ga., earlier in the year. The news of both deaths is attracting the usual response of outrage and shock both in the country and abroad. Floyd’s death, in particular, has witnessed in its aftermath violent protests across the land.

Yet, I am convinced, a moment’s reflection would make us realize that these deaths are only the latest in a pattern that needs merely to be acknowledged to call for a pause and some deeper thinking about how to end it.

The pattern should be familiar enough. There is a shooting, usually by a police officer or, in other cases, by a white person, often a male. There is a victim, usually a black person, quite often a male, and young. It so often happens that we do not find out about the incident until a later date, quite some time removed from when it actually occurred, as in the Arbery case. But once we do, again as part of an all-too-familiar pattern, all hell breaks loose. There are protests, marches, the ritual denunciation by the president of the country (that is, until Donald Trump’s presidency),faux soul-searching by other government types, homilies by righteous-sounding politicians, renewed energies for the gabfests that now populate our airwaves and the ever-recycled call for us to do something about it — to sensitize law enforcement to the needs and peculiarities of “inner city youth,” “minority populations,” “young black males” and sundry other evasions. Most important of all, there are ever strident calls for justice, for those responsible for the deaths and injuries to be brought to book, to be made to face the full force of the law. Like a recurrent nightmare, we are back in that sequence, again.

What is lost in all the outrage and the calls for prosecution is that this is not strictly a legal problem nor is it one that is rested by the recognition of the rights of Floyd, Arbery and others. We know from experience that prosecution is one thing, but securing conviction is a completely different thing, with jurors providing an unpredictable element in the process.

What calls for explanation is the remarkable convergence between the perpetrators — mostly white, state agents or ordinary citizens — and the victims — mostly black, mostly male.

Why do many whites think that the appearance of a black person in many of life’s most mundane situations portends trouble or, minimally, some unsavory expectations?

We need to examine and, I contend, take seriously a much-neglected fact in our history.  The immediate incidents in Minneapolis, Brunswick and others in the pattern described above emanate from a mindset that is widely distributed in our population. This mindset does not discriminate between races in its hold. Many immigrant cohorts from nonwhite origins exhibit it as do their white fellow citizens: In the history of our country, blacks have never been accepted as full citizens who deserve their place in America’s space. In other words, we, black people, have never been accepted without question as full citizens of this country.

Whether it is Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri, Walter Scott in South Carolina or Stephon Clark in California, the usual caution and courtesies extended routinely to whites in even more aggravating situations, including pointing weapons at law enforcement agents, are never similarly extended to blacks in even the most benign situations. The deadliest option is the only one in the latter situations.

I trace this to deeper causes in our social arrangements and the place of Americans of African descent in them as it has come through in our history. History is important. Because we tend to treat these incidents as isolated and unconnected in any direct way, we fail to see how and why the pattern persists. This forecloses the airing of how the place of African-descended Americans has been constructed in our history and how the collective unconscious that is birthed in it is left undisturbed precisely by our Freudian aversion towards it.

This is where the experience of another country with a profile that closely parallels that of the United States becomes relevant. When South Africa, in the aftermath of apartheid, chose the vehicle of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to educate its citizens about how low their country sank while it authorized as official policy and way of life the persistent denigration and dehumanization of a significant segment of its population —black people — it was an attempt to ensure that the mindset that over a century of racial oppression established would not be dismissed as just a handful of white South Africans misbehaving towards their fellow citizens.  The Commission was struck precisely to expose the record and challenge the society to come to terms with what it did to its black citizens and commit to changing life and thought to ensure that never again does the country walk in the valley of the shadow of racist evil.

No, South Africa has not gone far on the road to reconciliation, but no one, except the dyed-in-the-wool racists, denies that the country, as a society, wronged its black citizens and did so as a matter of collective responsibility.

The U.S., on the other hand, has never done the same for its centuries-long denigration and dehumanization of black humanity within its borders. That is why many think all will be well once we jail those who killed Arbery or, now, Floyd. Of course, that is a comforting thought. But that comfort is good only till the next killing which, no doubt, is being brewed in some very ordinary white mind that does not think that blacks are human, much less belong in America’s space, as I write this.

No, a TRC does not solve the problem that it will unearth. It only opens the space for us to confront an ugly past — the hands of which continue to move events in the present and stands to do so far into a future in which it remains unaddressed. We may be able to have truth without reconciliation, as is the case in South Africa at present, but it is not possible to have reconciliation without truth. Floyd and Arbery are just the latest victims of an undischarged truth about what this country thinks of black humanity and citizenship.


Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is a Professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this summer.