Restorative Racial Truth and Reconciliation in America

Bishop Desmond Tutu was correct: there is no future without forgiveness (see my book blogging post on Tutu’s book).  Immigration to Texas this week provided me the plane ride necessary to catch up on my mainstream media print magazines.  Newsweek’s cover story this week is Southern Discomfort and tackles the disturbing dichotomy facing the southern white middle class: vote for a white Republican whose party got us into severe economic trouble and a war of rapidly decreasingly popularity or vote for a BLACK MAN.  Unfortunately, as native son Christopher Dickey travels through the south he recounts conversations with people, including his own cousin who just can’t seem to bring themselves to vote for a BLACK MAN. They give reasons from the ridiculous – he’s letting Iraqi soldiers into the country, to the more consciously concealed racist, “He’s a Muslim.”   Dickey points out that the only two non-Republicans to win the white house since Nixon were both Southerners who were able to carry states in their own region (Carter and Clinton).

Obama’s southern strategy rests largely on registering large numbers of new Black and Latino voters and prying away Virginia and possibly North Carolina or Georgia from McCain, and maybe also, just possibly Texas if he names Texas Congressman Chet Edwards as his running mate.  Democrats who lose the south completely need to win 70 percent of the electoral votes in the rest of the country for victory.  That’s a steep climb, right Mssrs. Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry?

And yet to overcome this southern red block, Obama has as his main strategy registering voters along, largely racial lines.  Except when he’s registering young voters.  Voters who have grown up in a post civil rights era America, yet still an America haunted by the unfinished business of reconciling  the pain of American’s racial past.

Yesterday’s Fort Worth Star Telegram ran a story, Tarrant County’s Population Growing More Diverse,  talking about the growing diversity of the County where I now live.  My first reaction – how cool!. I wonder how many people I passed yesterday trying to buy a refrigeration, close on my house, get gas for the car, get a bagel, take Zack to drive go carts, or just other folks gathered around kitchen tables in the Fort Worth area had the same reaction I did.  How many sipped morning coffee in Fort Worth yesterday, read that the Latino and Asian populations were increasing thought, “cool, that’s good.”  My second thought was “Damn, I knew I should have spent more time brushing up on my Spanish this summer.”

Then I read the piece again, trying to keep an eye open and a mind alert.  Hispanic seems regular parlance, but back in Leominster, MA at least at the Spanish Center, Latino is preferred. Anglo is used in the paper here instead of white.  White denotes and conotes power, prestige and privilege to me, but does Anglo? Are they interchangeable?  The numbers also grabbed me.

Tarrant County is becoming one of the most diverse large metropolitan counties in the nation, ranking sixth among 34 counties with at least 1 million people, according to new census estimates.

Back in Boston – in today’s Globe one of my favorite columnists, Adrian Walker, writes about Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, two victims of the 1964, KKK related race killings in Mississippi, where it seems local law enforcement was in on their murders and the cover-up of same to the FBI (big boo hiss).

Margaret Burnham of Northeastern University School of Law and Charles J. Ogletree of Harvard Law School are representing their survivors, who filed a federal lawsuit earlier this week seeking damages for their decades of pain and suffering.

Good for them.  But our history is filled with such crimes.  And such pain caused by these crimes. Without a former Klansman, granted immunity, there would not now be any further prosecution of this case so many years later.   Yet so many similar cases have never been solved and may never be.

This gets me back to Bishop Tutu again and his Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had no punitive powers.  They could only recommend cases for further action, including a grant of Amnesty, which wasn’t a get out of jail free card.  An offender seeking Amnesty had to admit to wrong doing, face the victim or their family, and seek to make amends in some way.  It sounds too simple, right?  Read Tutu’s account. It was anything but simple, but it was restorative.  If there is anything our country needs it is a restoration of right relations along racial and ethnic/cultural lines.  The increasing diversity of say, Tarrant County makes that abundantly clear.  The lingering fear of Christopher Dickey’s cousin’s to vote for Obama,  a candidate he all but admits he thinks is the more needed candidate, just because of fear and inuendo related to race and religion make the need for reconciliation and restoration a national task we can’t afford the luxury to avoid.

First we must somehow get past the need for retributive justice. We all want people who do wrong things to be punished.  But the system we have now is an impersonal system where the state punishes people for crimes against a state, leaving individuals who have been wronged still feeling a need for revenge, for their story to be heard, for their pain to be validated and addressed. In the end, retributive justice punishes, it deals out retribution, but it doesn’t heal.

Then we must find a way to incorporate restorative justice. Restorative justice realizes that wrong doing, even grave crimes against humanity take place in or violate human relationship.

Practices and programs reflecting restorative purposes will respond to crime by:

  1. identifying and taking steps to repair harm,
  2. involving all  stakeholders, and
  3. transforming the traditional relationship between communities and their governments in responding to crime.
We  can’t just forget Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, nor should we.  We can’t just forget the civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s, nor should we.  We can’t just forget the Japanese internment camps of World War II or Slavery and Jim Crow, or how this entire country was taken from American Indians and how they were and are treated.  We can’t just forget American  imperialism, expansionism and free trade and our treatment of immigrants both legal and illegal. We can’t forget the history of women.  All of these stories leave us a history that is full of abuse, violence, crime, and corruption. The tentacles of resentment and anger will continue to grow down through our history until we fully address them. Maybe, just maybe if undertake some type of restorative truth and reconciliation effort, we can finally at some point, if not put these things behind us (for they will always be part of our history) at least let them be a fully acknowledged, accepted and forgiven part of our history.
No, it won’t be easy.  Nothing worthwhile on this scope ever is. No, I don’t even know how to begin yet.  But I believe it’s possible.
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One thought on “Restorative Racial Truth and Reconciliation in America

  1. I really like your idea: I actually took a class in transformative justice. But there are some issues I would ask you to consider.

    First: South African Aparthied was actually imported from 1950′(?) United States laws. The Homeland system came from our Reservation system. Is there an issue where we are dealing with injustices that took place over a larger period of time?

    Second: Our historical approach to the major kernal of racism, slavery and the confederacy must be realistically viewed from the victim’s perspective instead of the bystander’s or the appologizing perpetrator’s. In Germany, generally there is no pride in saying your ancestor was an SS officer, yet too many whites fail to see that many African Americans see confederate soldiers the same way. We must cease showing such understanding those who celebrate a culture that supported such inhumane behavior. To somehow talk about it being a different time, ignores those in that time who spoke against it.

    Third: We must step away from being PC. Racists are racists, not conservative. Hating someone, or making laws against someone based on their skin color is evil, not misunderstood. Slavery was more than the sanitized versions revealed on TV: pedifilia, rape, and other foul crimes ocurred and we must be honest enough to not only say it happened, but to hold firm against those who would desire to “gloss it over” because their family were involved in the system.

    Fourth: We should, be mature enough to look at ongoing racism: in the feminist movement, how black men are fetishized in the our country’s adult industry, and the defacto segregation that occurs in the entertainment industry.

    Fifth: We as a faith must give up Jefferson. We must admit that a sexual relationship with a slave cannot be rationalized and must be accepted for the foul act that it was. If ever the radical argument of power and rape fits it is here and those ministers who cannot see this should be the first to be talked to.

    Sixth: We as a faith must celebrate those who died for civil rights instead of just talking about them. We too often sing praises of Thoreau and Jefferson instead of Liuzzo and Reeb. We need to wear proudly that we funded Kwanza.

    Seventh: We must understand that to be an anti-racist faith means agressive diversity recruitment. We must also realize that an argument that diversity may drive some whites away is nothing more than covert racism.

    I would posit that we need to think about these 7 issues before Transformative justice can occur in this country and in our faith. If we do then our faith could lead the way for our country. I personally, cannot think of a better faith to do it.

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