How to Attempt Racial Healing—Even During a Trump Presidency

America’s past truth and reconciliation processes show us what works.
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YES! illustration by Jennifer Luxton.

Donald Trump did not invent racism. It is in the very DNA of our nation’s founding, the fabric of our flag, the lyrics of our anthem, the soil of our land, and the bodies of our water. And it runs deep through the policies and practices of our institutions.

But Trump stoked it.

Many who have watched the yearlong daily dose of explicitly racist, misogynist, and other bigoted attitudes have wondered how we would ever heal—no matter who won the election. And after the results, the question is ever more pressing: How do we proceed, particularly in the towns and neighborhoods where we live and interact with people who voted for Trump and seem to embrace the divisiveness he espouses?

“By demagogically appealing to the most urgent needs of millions of white Americans who are in pain, while scapegoating the historically marginalized people of color, Donald Trump pulled off the greatest upset in U.S. electoral history,” says Fania Davis, a lifelong racial justice activist and civil rights attorney. “It feels indeed apocalyptic to know that a majority of white folk voted in as president a white billionaire who is a climate change denier, and is racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic. This election sadly follows the historical pattern where we see a period of racial justice progress cyclically followed by backlash.”

Davis has been a relentless proponent of restorative justice and truth and reconciliation processes. She believes they can still work to mend the racial divide in this country.

“A restorative justice-based truth and reconciliation process to transform historical and contemporary racial harm assumes critical importance in this historical moment,” she says. “We need a truth and reconciliation process … solidly located within the larger social project of creating a united popular front … allowing us to fulfill our historic destiny of creating a more just, equitable, and sustainable world.”

To be clear, Davis is not describing national truth and reconciliation processes similar to those held in South Africa and Canada. Talk to anyone familiar with those, and they’ll tell you the United States is a long way from having any sort of national truth-telling, let alone reconciliation. Davis wants to start at the local level.

The United States is a long way from having any sort of national truth-telling, let alone reconciliation.

David Ragland agrees. He runs the Truth-Telling Project, a nonprofit based in Ferguson, Missouri, that was started in wake of the police killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American who was unarmed when he was shot

Ragland’s project held a series of truth-telling conversations that have drawn activists, scholars, and community members from all over the country. Some of the conversations, which address what Ragland calls the “ongoing police occupation” of the mostly Black small town of Ferguson, have been live-streamed for the benefit of groups nationwide working toward healing in their own communities.

“You can’t force it,” says Ragland. “When the idea of reconciliation first came up in Ferguson, people were like, ‘Fuck reconciliation. Now, I want some truth.’”

We can learn a lot about how communities can find a shared vision of truth from two local truth and reconciliation processes in the United States.

Maine’s Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission investigated how generations of Native children had been taken from their homes, against the wishes of their families, and placed in foster care with white families. The Commission, created in 2012, had the full support of Maine’s governor, and the secretary of state was one of the commissioners.

Its three purposes were truth, healing, and change, says Esther Attean, co-director of Maine Wabanaki REACH, a cross-cultural group that supports the process. Through research and personal statements, the commission was able to uncover the truth of what happened in Maine, she says. The gathering of information itself helped people heal. Participants compiled all of the data, reviews, and statements, and made recommendations to Maine Wabanaki REACH, which is working to implement those recommendations and in some cases even go further.

“And the work is having an impact in our state in more areas than just child welfare,” says Attean. REACH has collaborated with white allies in Maine, which led to daylong workshops where organizers taught other non-Natives about white privilege. The project makes room for reconciliation within the two ethnic groups, as well as between them. “There’s individual reconciliation. There’s reconciliation within the family, with communities. And our hope is that we can get to a place where we’re reconciling with each other,” Attean says.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, the process didn’t go as well.

Arguing is necessary.

Organizers had hoped it would bring healing around what has become known as the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, when forty Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis opened fire on an anti-Klan demonstration and killed five people. No one was convicted. 

The truth and reconciliation idea first emerged in 1999, and in 2004 the commissioners were sworn in. As in Maine, the commission held public hearings, collected data, examined historical records, as well as interviewed witnesses of the killings, survivors, and many more, then generated a report with recommendations that included instituting a police review board, anti-racism training, and public apologies.

However, it did not have the impact those involved had hoped for.

Ed Whitfield, an activist who has lived in Greensboro for more than 40 years, took part in the commission process. He says he understands why things turned out the way they did. “We didn’t have the government sanction,” he says, unlike in Maine. Jill Williams, executive director of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says many residents opposed the process. These detractors said things like: “The reconciliation isn’t working because all of a sudden we’re seeing more animosity, more people are talking about racism, people are arguing more.”

But arguing is necessary, according to Citizen University CEO Eric Liu in a recent article in The Atlantic. He lists “more arguing” as a step forward in healing our racial divide (though not the “stupid” type of arguing we’ve been doing in this election cycle, he says, which  overlooks the root of our problems).

Pamela Brown, co-host of the WBAI/Pacifica “Morning Show,” has participated in and written about truth commissions. She thinks the way some white liberals have responded to Trump’s racist statements shows the importance of not just arguing, but being honest about what the argument is. She says white liberals don’t want to see their own assumptions about white supremacy even though their belief system “relies on race being the critical factor in the value of the person in terms of obtaining and holding on to resources.

“I think the division in this country is deep, and that we cannot heal without justice,” says Brown. “But the white working class has its own grievances. We need to find a way to have real dialogue...Sad state of affairs...but I think resistance will be strong.”

“Continued failure to deal with our country’s race-based historical traumas dooms us to perpetually re-enact them.”

What we’ve learned from the truth-telling processes in Maine and Ferguson is that they can work, even with those who seemingly oppose justice most.

Davis proposes working hard to engage those who resist. “We need to call them in. We need to knit them together with everyone else into a powerful popular front,” says Davis, referring to a Bernie Sanders or Green Party-type agenda to redistribute wealth and create a Green New Deal. An alliance like this, she explains, takes on the 1 percent and creates a crucial unity that dissociates itself from the traditional party politics of the 1 percent.

Trump’s election has sounded an alarm, and Davis hopes it leads to the formation of a united popular front.

“Race has historically been used by capital to divide and conquer,” says Davis. “Continued failure to deal with our country’s race-based historical traumas dooms us to perpetually re-enact them, sabotaging relationships as well as transracial social justice movements, like the popular front.”

Unless we work to eliminate implicit bias and institutional and structural racism, this popular front won’t be strong, she says. “It cannot hold together in an enduring way.”