….and Why We Need to Root it Out Through a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Imagine: you are an inquisitive little boy, six years old. You ask a million questions. One question for which you haven’t received a meaningful answer is this:
“Daddy, why do White people treat us bad, just because we’re Black? Is there something wrong with us?”
Countless times those questions have been asked, the querent only changing the color based on their own ethnicity.
At some point in a young Black child’s life, one (or both) of his/her parents will have to have “The Talk,” the warning about how to deal with authority figures (especially the police) in America.
Keep your hands on the wheel, don’t reach for anything, listen to the police officer, don’t make sh*t-a** remarks….
The expectation among police officers — the ultimate symbols of authority everywhere— is that the people they stop must obey them. And nowhere is this truer than in Black communities. The police demand obedience and self-control, and they have problems when they confront people who chafe at their exercise of authority and don’t exhibit self-control.
America’s Original Sin
Charlemagne tha God, co-host of The Breakfast Club radio show, has for years called slavery “America’s original sin.” Yes. Yes, it is.
For 346 years, from 1619 (when slaves were brought into Virginia by English colonists) to 1965 (when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act), Black people were largely viewed as property, to do with as White people dictated. Based on nonsensical religious reasons (“Black people were condemned by God with the Mark of Cain,” their blackness; and their being non-Christians), they were also treated as coming from primitive lands (even though the Ashanti and other kingdoms and empires in Africa were at least as technologically and economically advanced as the most civilized countries in Europe).
The ignorance and barbarity of White colonists and kidnappers required the infusion of intellectual justifications to abuse, kidnap and torture Black captives in the colonies, and later to count them in America’s Constitution as only three-fifths of a person for electoral apportionment purposes. Plenty of religious and scholarly authors provided such rationalizations for the wholesale barbarity of the treatment of Blacks throughout the centuries.
As pointed out by Professor Salley E. Hadden in her 2001 book Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas,
“The history of police work in the South grows out of this early fascination, by white patrollers, with what African American slaves were doing. Most law enforcement was, by definition, white patrolmen watching, catching, or beating black slaves.” — Hadden, 2001, p. i
The attitudes of policemen were based on the demand by slaveholders, older white men throughout the South, that slaves be closely watched in order to prevent slave rebellions, of which there were quite a few.
And the pro-slavery attitudes in the South led to the creation of mandatory “slave patrols” of all white men between the ages of 18 and 45 who periodically went through the slave quarters and looked for any signs of rebelliousness or potential insurrections. The slave patrols were armed with guns and whips, and were given carte blanche to brutalize Blacks. This led to plenty of instances of White-on-Black rape and torture.
America’s Gun Fetish
Additionally, and most importantly, slavery led to the creation of plenty of pro-gun laws — including the Second Amendment to the Constitution — that insured that America would have the highest per capita arsenal in the world, one which has led to so many pointless incidents of violence, injuries and death.
We have far more guns in America than we have people; why is that so?
There is a cultural trend throughout much of America which equates gun ownership with manliness. Manliness, in turn, equates to power. And with the rise of feminism (and the #Me Too movement), quite a few women have purchased guns over the last several years, in a tacit bid to acquire their own form of (handheld) power.
With the advent of the now-bankrupt National Rifle Association (NRA), campaign contributions were made in tremendous amounts to political candidates who would support strong pro-gun laws. Not surprisingly, many state legislatures and Congress were well-stocked with pro-gun nuts. In many cases, the inmates took over and ran the asylum, and it was impossible to get any kind of sensible legislation passed: universal background checks, reasonable waiting periods, limitations on the types of ammunition that could be used, and so on.
Whenever any such proposal was made, a pro-gun leader would arise and make a squirrel-is-loose statement to his political dogs, and the proposal would be immediately defeated. This, notwithstanding Columbine, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, El Paso Walmart, and countless other massacre sites throughout the country.
So, although gun ownership and use had a strong affiliation with the institution of slavery, modern gun ownership is now tied into the concept of having power. And with the political and cultural divisions existing in America, tied into identity politics, many people feel that their only way to maintain some degree of power is to own guns.
It’s not just about renting a helicopter and gunning down wild hogs with automatic weapons over farmland in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and other parts of the country; it’s about having a sense that there’s one thing no one can take away from the gun-owner: his/her personal armament.
Thus, the less power people feel they have, the more they seem to need guns. And this may well account for the rise in gun ownership among Donald Trump’s base, that part of the electorate which feels that they have been forgotten and left behind by their political and economic leaders, with no hopes for a brighter future or a chance to leave their kids and grandchildren a better world in which to live.
The Need for a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, has called for the formation of a so-called “1–6 Commission.” Its purpose, she stated, would be to examine ways to make the U.S. Capitol safer, specifically, and, more generally, to find out what allowed the Capitol to be breached on January 6, 2021, after ex-President Trump riled up his followers and the lunatic fringe broke into Congress.
Actually, we don’t need a 1–6 Commission. Rather, we need a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (NTRC).
As I see it, the NTRC would have to focus on several things:
- Listening: White people have to listen to the experiences of Black people in all areas of their lives (and vice versa). From listening comes understanding, from understanding comes wisdom, and from wisdom comes justice.
- Accountability: the hallmark of White Supremacy has been lack of accountability. Whites have, literally for four centuries, been inured to privilege: the ability to do what one wants, without consequences. In today’s world, that social and behavioral model simply won’t work.
- Reparations: Many people in the Black community have called for reparations for the centuries of abuses suffered by Black people. They say that fundamental justice requires that the descendants of slaves be paid something of value for the contributions of the slaves, who built this country for free. Monetary contributions would be problematic, of course, because the argument would be made (by Whites) “Why should I, who never owned slaves, nor did I have ancestors who owned slaves, have to pay a monetary penalty or fee? I did nothing to contribute to slavery, nor did I benefit from it.” Of course, the countervailing argument is: “The slaves built the infrastructure of America. There is an economic benefit to that infrastructure. Through accounting methods, we should be able to figure out a value for that infrastructure and then calculate a per capita toll on each White person, less the values enjoyed by today’s Black people.” That raises a mountain of problems, and it would be hoped that wiser heads would prevail and determine that there are other methods of providing for reparations than assessing a monetary toll.
The notion of listening implies sharing, empathy, and understanding, of being seen, which is hugely important among human beings. From that comes the belief in equality, and that, in turn, leads to accountability. Men should be accountable to women, and vice versa. Whites should be accountable to non-Whites, and vice versa. In short, we all need to be held accountable for what we say and do, based on concepts of mutual respect, dignity, and decent values.
The final element of the NTRC would be reparations. It would be hard to measure the exact economic harm suffered by multiple generations of slaves, but it certainly would be possible to look at our aspirations going forward: treating all people with dignity, respect and having values that work for us all, such as tolerance, appreciation, gladness for diversity. These values would include the need for dramatic improvements in housing, education, employment opportunities, social programs, and the justice system.
For example, many people today believe that the forced incarceration of so many Black and Brown people is a modern-day version of slavery. The “slave patrols” have been replaced by police, prosecutors, prison guards. The “slave quarters” are now jails, prisons, and penitentiaries. The “slaveholders” are the corporations which contribute to the politicians that make penalties for Black and Brown people so much more onerous and prevalent than for Whites.
A dramatically-revised educational system, coupled with much-improved employment and business opportunities, plus values that substantially reduced the prison populations, would go a long way towards making meaningful, real-world reparations for the sufferings experienced by Black folks over the centuries.
An NTRC would not meet in one place nor be convened over a short period of time. Its efforts would take years, and would likely have to include leaders from politics, business, education, the healthcare system, the justice system, religious organizations, and other groups. It would necessarily include many people from all walks of life and cultures in America, and it presupposes that there would be extensive ways to document its meetings. Its output should not simply be a comprehensive report that goes on a shelf and gathers dust. Instead, it should be a living, breathing document which encompasses the rich, diverse nature of the people who live in America and who strive, however imperfectly, to live better lives as co-equal neighbors and improving human beings.
At the end of the day, the results of the NTRC would be massive changes in our laws, our practices and values in education, the environment, medicine, housing, business, immigration, the arts and sciences, the military, our relations with other countries; in short, how we view ourselves and relate to the rest of the world.
The NTRC would not only dramatically reduce racism, but would also help Americans become better parts of humanity. And when we do that, we will have really pulled our weight, living on this fragile blue-green marble in the vast darkness of space.