Tim Hart knows his generation has left the young people of America with a big mess in the battle to end racism. But he’s willing to join the fight if you are.
Every failed conversation we have about race underscores this truth: we have a lot of history unaccounted for, so going back to the beginning—and putting Nelson Mandela’s legacy into practice—is the only path to real progress.
What kind of a man—after hearing African-American parents testify they were denied justice, because their sons’ murderers were racial profilers and emboldened by “stand your ground” laws—dismisses their claims and the entire proceeding as “political?”
A U.S. Senator:
After four centuries, we Americans cannot have a positive, productive conversation about race, one that finally gets us past—well, the past.
Why is that?
Suppose someone else has hurt you intentionally, in deep, almost unimaginable ways. How do you get them to make it right? You seek justice—call the cops, your lawyer (if you can afford one), the local TV station. Being human, you’re angry; you want them to pay to make you whole. Jail time, damages, forfeiture of property.
Being human, they resist; lawyer up, put out “their side of the story,” organize against you, all to protect their safety and assets. Communication stops, positions harden, and you both hunker down for years of senseless conflict.
Are We Doomed to Relive Our Past?
There’s another way.
South Africa took it in 1995, as documented by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann in Long Night’s Journey into Day (2000):
In the film, Archbishop Desmond Tutu—the co-evangelist for the initiative, along with President Nelson Mandela—explains how, after 45 years of apartheid, the Black majority found a better path to justice: through truth, reconciliation, and restoration, rather than mere revenge:
We make the mistake of conflating all justice into Retributive Justice, where there is something called Restorative Justice. And this is the option that we have chosen. But there is justice; the perpetrators don’t get off scot free. They have to confess publicly, in the full glare of television lights, that they did those ghastly things. And that’s pretty, pretty tough.
South Africa’s Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 334 of 1995 established the basis for its 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 hearings and proceedings of its three committees and the TRC’s final actions, based on their findings and recommendations, are powerful, heart-wrenching reading.
The success and enduring value of this particular “truth, reconciliation, and reparations” process will continue to be discussed and debated. Comparing its outcome to the rocky path we’ve been on for the last 150 years, though, I believe our application of these principles to our situation—even four centuries after the fact—would breach the walls of denial and misunderstanding that continue to segregate us.
We Pretend We’re “Color-Blind”
Here’s the fundamental question we face: How much longer can we as a Nation afford to ignore a wound that’s never healed fully, with all its implications, and continue pretend that we’re “color-blind?”
I don’t think we can. Our fear of the truth and its consequences can and should be overcome by our better nature, as expressed in our own beliefs.
As Nelson Mandela put it for his own country:
True reconciliation does not consist in merely forgetting the past… If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to that goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.
For ours, Dr. Maya Angelou is more direct:
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage need not be lived again.
No Lincoln, No Healing
That’s what Abraham Lincoln had in mind when the Civil War was won. His vision of a strong Union based on a reconciled and rebuilt South, as reflected in his Second Inaugural Address and the language of the 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 denial of 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 national legislation aimed at finally restoring full citizenship and the vote, and addressing the economic legacies of slavery and retribution.
This Sojourner’s Truth
I lived through those years as a child and adolescent. I discovered slavery not in history texts, but from Mark Twain. Barack Hussein Obama was two years and three weeks old, and I was 15, when Dr. King’s “I have a dream today” rolled like thunder around the Reflecting Pool. That prophet, grounded in moral authority but unshackled by the incidents of power, braved hatred, arrest, fire hoses and dogs to calmly and resolutely insist on replacing centuries of transgression with justice, equality, and peace. Then, he and those he inspired—of all races and beliefs—drove two Presidents to vest the progeny of slaves with full citizenship, the franchise, and a path out of destitution, exactly a century after Lincoln’s untimely death ended those first promises.
Graduate Study: “Hard Knocks”
College and law school threw me into our social and political cauldron that was 1966-73. There, freedom of inquiry in a protected environment allowed me to absorb and assess events that were startling our entire culture awake. Truth bolted from the shadows into the glare of reality, ubiquitous and inescapable. Then, as now, the choice was to embrace or deny. At that time, though, the reality of it was impossible to avoid. Among others, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and the men and women with whom I shared seminars and barricades taught me, as much as a white man could ever know, what it was like to be Black in America.
There were horrible consequences, of course. The young President who embraced the cause of racial justice was murdered, as was his younger brother, who took up his torch five years later. The powerful Texan who began to unburden us from our historical shame with strokes of his pen was defeated by a war he lacked the experience to manage. Another assassin stilled the prophet’s voice, and our cities burned. Enter Richard Nixon, elected narrowly by a Southern strategy based on fear and ignorance which ushered in a half-century of retrenchment and denial. I was 20 and, at that moment, ineligible to vote.
A Half-Century Later, We’re Still in Denial
Today, there are some striking parallels: interminable war abroad; social and economic inequality at home; and kids of all colors and stations in the streets, calling their elders’ attention to those issues. Except for two Presidential elections, they’ve refused to adopt the institutions and strategies of their elders.
What’s different? For one, there is no personified national conscience. For another—thanks to the invention of the 24-hour news cycle and a free Internet—we are now a nation of enclaves, each clothed in its own armor of orthodoxy and marshaled “facts” about what’s real. When enclaves collide, commercial media cover the crash, not the cause, driven more naturally by the interests of advertisers and investors than citizens. Now that our national elections have become a profit center for them, it is not only possible to avoid reality, but to bend it, or deny it entirely.
Using social media to reconnect with people I grew up with has shown me that it’s much easier than it used to be to avoid inconvenient truths—especially if you’ve never been challenged to study, work, or socialize with anyone other than those who are just like you in origin, heritage, appearance, and belief. How else to explain Mitt Romney’s “other” 47%?
For too many in my generation, the Internet is not a frontier, it’s a refuge—or, in this case, a plantation.
You’re Better Than We—and Better-informed
Kids today, particularly Generation Y and the Millenials, have a better if tenuous grip on things. Unless home-schooled or closeted in class or sectarian-segregated academies, you’ve grown up both in social diversity and confronting the realities of war and economic inequality. (“Occupy” movement, anyone?) You’re the infantry (pun intended) enlisted by Obama for America to deliver two elections. (It was, and is, my honor to work alongside you there and in Organizing for America.) These are tools that far exceed in scope anything we had and which remain mysterious, to most of us.
In Philip Rodriguez’s documentary released a year ago, Race 2012, you recognized that our problems are less about race than class, and it is we, a significant fragment of your elders, who magnify and perpetuate the problem by pretending it doesn’t exist.
You could just ignore us, and wait. Unfortunately, as a voting bloc we White Boomers will not be overtaken by non-White voters nationally until mid-century, and enough of our most ignorant and fearful have been gerrymandered into Red State districts to own the House of Representatives—and perhaps the Senate—until at least 2022.
Can you afford to allow that to continue?
Not Even an Apology?
Since 1968, we’ve barely sniffed around the threshold of contrition:
• A 1997 resolution that apologized for slavery, H. Con. Res. 96, was never heard in the 105thCongress.
• Former President George W. Bush called slavery “one of the greatest crimes of history” on June 8, 2003, but didn’t offer an apology.
• On July 29, 2008, the Democratically-controlled House passed H. Res. 194, also containing an apology, by voice vote with 120 cosponsors—100 more than its predecessor a decade earlier had. No similar Senate resolution was taken up.
• On June 18, 2009, the Senate passed S. Con. Res. 26. For the record, it never passed the House, and it and its House predecessor each contained a disclaimer making it clear that “[n]othing in this resolution authorize[d] or support[ed] any claim against the United States; or serve[d] as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”
Where to Go from Here?
The solution? I propose a focused, independent national inquiry into slavery in America—its roots, its status, and its legacy. The goals? Truth, apology, reconciliation—and reparations or restoration, if appropriate.
Don’t panic—this isn’t new territory.
There’s already a sensible template. Every year since 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has introduced H.R. 40 (emblematic of the promised “40 Acres & A Mule” that freed slaves never received), which would establish a “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans.” “Acknowledg[ing] the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery,” the bill would authorize the Commission to:
• Study slavery and its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves;
• Study the impact of those forces on today’s living African Americans; and
• Make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on living African Americans.
The Speaker of the House and the President would each appoint three members and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, one, and the Commission is charged to report to the Congress within one year of its first meeting.
Fear to Manage, or Manage Our Fear?
Surely, the fear of liability for reparations among the advantaged feeds the resistance to a formal apology, let alone further study. The moral claim is absolute, nonetheless, and the issues of damages and remedies are thorny and will be contentious—even among supporters.
We mustn’t allow that to stop us. We’ve proven time and again we’re better than that.
The work of our own Comparative Human Relations Initiative (CHRI) 13 years ago shows a constructive way forward. Out of 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, emerged an International Working and Advisory Group (IWAG). After four years of study, the Group produced four comprehensive publications and a final report, Beyond Racism: Embracing an Interdependent Future. It summarizes 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.
Don’t be misled. This is not a “pie-in-the-sky,” academic exercise. Continuing to pretend that our racist past doesn’t still color our present, and future, is living in a fool’s paradise. In “Truth and Reconciliation in America,” Ira Glasser nailed it:
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.
Don’t Thank Us
So—congratulations, Young America, my generation’s gift to you: a Supreme Court and a majority of State Legislatures who seem more determined to backtrack on the human rights of some Americans we thought settled, at last, a half-century ago, than to build a future together.
Unless we join together to demand that the remorse, accounting, and healing begin now—once and for all. Following the South African model, our options:
• Contact our Representatives and urge them to cosponsor and support H.R. 40.
• Urge our Senators to introduce, cosponsor, and adopt an identical Concurrent Resolution.
• Petition the White House to support the legislative creation—or, failing that, appointment by the President—of a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans, as provided in H.R. 40.
• Urge our alma maters and other institutions of higher learning to dedicate their time, resources, and influence to a meaningful national reconciliation and reparations process.
• Lead our communities of faith and common belief to express the moral necessity of removing this persistent obstacle to justice, healing, and equality.
I’m ready to act on all these fronts. You’re younger, and you’ve got more time:
Where will you start?
Lead Photo: AP/Ben Curtis