Reconcile & Repair: How?

Picking up from last Tuesday:  How could we as a Nation reconcile with people of color for our past actions and what could we do to make it right?

Kudos to our re-elected President for celebrating the progress we’ve made since his 16th predecessor and his allies freed the slaves, for invoking Dr. King’s contribution and sacrifice, and for challenging all of us to continue that work.  It’s leadership that we’ve missed for too long.



To review, we know that Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a strong Union based on a reconciled and rebuilt South, as reflected in his Second Inaugural Address and the language of the proposed 13th Amendment, died with him at the Petersen house on April 15, 1865.  Retribution displaced reconciliation, launching a century of renewed racial violence, discrimination, and citizenship.  That century ended in the decade begun in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education decision and concluded in 1965, with enactment of Congressional legislation aimed at finally restoring full citizenship and the franchise and addressing its economic vestiges.

Despite occasional progress in the battle against sex and gender discrimination since then, today we near the end of another half-century of retrenchment and denial in race discrimination.

And we’re not talking just the descendants of kidnapped Africans, either.  There are the small matters of—

  • The near-extermination of indigenous peoples and theft of their land;
  • “Taxation Without Representation” for citizens who reside in the District of Columbia;
  • Exploitation of Asian immigrants to build our Western infrastructure in subhuman conditions; and
  • Assuring a cheap source of skilled and unskilled labor by keeping immigrants from the Americas in legal limbo.

Here are some instructive markers on the state of the problem, based on organized analysis and recommendations:

United Nations

The United Nations has highlighted institutional racism under its broader examination of discrimination against indigenous peoples, starting with its Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination in 1973-1982, followed by the establishment in 1982 of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations.  Progress on the Group’s draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was realized in the Durban Declaration and Program of Action in 2001 and was adopted by the General Assembly in December 2007.  The United States was one of four nation members out of 144 who voted to oppose it.  A Durban Review Conference was convened in 2009, at which 182 States from all regions of the world reached consensus on an outcome document in which they:

Welcome[d] the adoption of the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples which has a positive impact on the protection of victims and, in this context, urge[d] States to take all necessary measures to implement the rights of indigenous peoples in accordance with international human rights instruments without discrimination…

On December 16, 2010, President Obama took the occasion of the second White House Tribal Nations Conference to announce that the U.S. would reverse the position of the Bush Administration and become the last nation to drop its opposition to the Declaration.  So, at the very least, we’re on record concerning Native Americans.

South Africa

The end of apartheid in South Africa in and steps taken by its new National Unity government in the next year to promote reconciliation informed the subsequent direction and actions of the U.N described above, especially the 2001 Durban Conference and Directive.  The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 334 of 1995 established the basis for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was, in the words of the former Minister of Justice:

…a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.”

The Commission executed its mandate through three distinct committees:

  • Human Rights Violations, which investigated human rights abuses that took place between 1960 and 1994, based on statements made to the TRC.  Identified victims’ fate, whereabouts, and the nature and extent of the harm they have suffered.  Their findings were referred to the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee.
  • Reparation and Rehabilitation, which provided victim support to ensure that the Commission’s process both restored victims’ dignity and resulted in policy changes and reparations payments to promote rehabilitation and healing of survivors, their families and communities at large; and to assure non repetition and healthy co-existence.
  • Amnesty, which reviewed applications for amnesty for recommendation to the TRC.  Applicants applied for amnesty for any act, omission, or offense associated with a political objective committed between March 1, 1960 and May 11 1994.

The hearings and proceedings of those committees and the TRC’s actions based on their findings and recommendations are powerful reading and heart-wrenching when viewed.  If you haven’t seen Long Night’s Journey into Day, you must:



The success and enduring value of this particular “truth, reconciliation, and reparations” process will continue to be discussed and debated; comparing it to the fits and starts we’ve experienced for 150 years, though, I believe that the application of those principles to our future deliberations might produce a breakthrough.

Comparative Human Relations Initiative (CHRI)

CHRI began in 1995 as a project of our Southern Education Foundation with a series of informal meetings in Atlanta at which leading scholars, activists, and policy analysts discussed race, racism, and inequality in the United States, South Africa and Brazil.  By the summer 1996, CHRI established a working collaboration with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) and an informal coalition of groups and individuals in Brazil.  The Initiative also created an International Working and Advisory Group, comprised of distinguished men and women from the three nations.  After undertaking a survey of existing literature, CHRI commissioned a large number of topical and comparative papers from each country.  The Initiative involved several hundred scholars, activists, government officials, community leaders, and private sector representatives in consultations in Atlanta (April 1997), Rio de Janeiro (September 1997), and Cape Town (March 1998).  The IWAG met in October 1998 to develop its own consensus and to sharpen its collective understanding.  In 1999, through a small staff and a handful of consultants, the Foundation developed final versions of the Initiative’s publications.

The Initiative’s four publications, issued 13 years ago, are worth examining.  In its report, Beyond Racism: Embracing an Interdependent Future, IWAG’s members summarize the common problem on the ground in all three cultures and the consequences of failure to address it:

…The challenge of the new era will be to help individuals, institutions, societies and the world move beyond racism by systematically uprooting the attitudes, practices and policies that promote and sustain inequality.  Those nations that continue to provide benefits for Whites at the expense of Blacks, women and other vulnerable groups, fail to nurture the talents of all of their people and tolerate or even encourage deep cultural and “racial” divisions, will undermine their competitive edge with other nations and lose credibility with their own people.

It will take a substantial and sustained investment of time, energy and resources by people in Brazil, South Africa, the United States and the international community to bring about these changes.  But the simple truth is that our nations and world cannot afford the soaring costs and negative consequences of prejudice…

The value of the Initiative’s work to me is in the approach taken; it’s more geopolitically focused, and their methodology puts reality and practicality ahead of principle, in order to serve the ultimate objective better.  For example, Ira Glasser’s essay, “Truth and Reconciliation in America,” in Three Nations at a Crossroads, defines our own challenge:

In America, the key myth that needs to be destroyed is the myth that skin-color is a proxy, a marker for innate, genetically-based fundamental characteristics like intelligence, morality, capacity for hard work, criminal behavior, etc… We inherit a long history, reflected today, of imposed hierarchies based on skin color… Our moral vision is of a society where benefits and opportunities are not linked to skin color.  But our strategic imperative is to find a way to get from here to there, and in the world we have inherited we cannot do that without taking skin color into account.  That is our dilemma.

The question we must face is: How much longer, in the face of these realities, can we as  Nation afford to pretend that we’re “color-blind?”

Next:  Precedents: Native and Japanese Americans

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