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“No healing without the truth”: How a federal commission could help America understand systemic racism

America’s long-overdue racial healing commission is making its way through Congress.

A Black Lives Matter flag flies on Black Lives Matter Plaza Northwest in Washington DC, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

When Barbara Lee’s mother went into labor, no one at the hospital would let her in. It was 1946 in segregated El Paso, Texas, and she was Black. When she was finally allowed through the door, she was left in a gurney in the hospital hallway, unconscious and unassisted, until it was too late to perform the C-section she needed. Moments later, the doctor — seeming unsure of what to do — decided to use forceps, a risky process of delivery that could pose birth injuries, to pull the baby out.

“My mother almost died in childbirth having me, and I almost didn’t get into this world, because I barely made it,” said Lee, a Democratic Congress member from California. “That’s an example of systemic racism in the health care system that we’re still dealing with today.”

Lee’s mother is not an anomaly. In the United States, Black mothers have historically faced significant obstacles in receiving quality health care. Over the years, a growing body of evidence has proved the significant role systemic racism — the long-tail effects of slavery, segregation, and discrimination — plays in these disparities: Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, partially because their pain and discomfort aren’t taken as seriously as their white counterparts. In addition, 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Black infant mortality is over two times higher than the death rate of white babies.

It’s disparities like maternal mortality — along with racial inequities in wages, education, mass incarceration, and more — that has led Lee and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to reintroduce a resolution last week urging the US government to establish a commission that would examine how systemic racism plays out in policies and overall practices today.

The resolution to create a US Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) — which Lee began drafting more than four years ago with the help of fellow Congress members, activists, and scholars — was first introduced in the summer of 2020 against the backdrop of the compounding crises of police violence and Covid-19, which have disproportionately impacted Black and brown people. Its main goal is to study — and tell the truth — of how people of color have been treated beyond what’s written in US history textbooks, so the nation can create policies that address the legacies of injustice that many still suffer today.

Though the resolution has yet to be adopted, grassroots organizers are already helping legislators draw up a blueprint for what the commission can do, including creating history lessons to be implemented in America’s education systems, building monuments in honor of underrepresented groups, and establishing safe public spaces for cultural dialogue. Once in place, the TRHT commission — an intergovernmental effort led by local communities — could leverage federal resources to support and amplify these local efforts to educate the public and eliminate systemic inequities.

While some may mistake TRHT as a means to enact reparations, the commission differs from the bill to study reparations, HR 40, which has been reintroduced in Congress numerous times over the past three decades and as recently as last month. While the legislations do complement each other in repairing racial injustice against Black people, the proposed racial-healing commission would acknowledge the struggles of other people of color — Native Americans, Asians, Latinos, and Pacific Islanders — too.

“This commission is long overdue,” Lee said. “The public needs to be aware of the whys and the hows of living under systems of oppression, and understand that our job now if we’re going to really unify and heal this country is to dismantle those chains of slavery that still haven’t been broken. Now, we have come a long way, but the underlying issue has never been addressed in America.”

What the racial-healing commission would entail

Truth and reconciliation commissions first emerged in South America and South Africa in the late 20th century. Today, more than 40 countries have established their own truth commissions. Canada, for instance, created a truth commission in 2007 to address the abusive and brutal laws that put Indigenous children in harms way. For nearly a decade, the government launched numerous public education programs and events that rather shifted the country’s historical narrative of its First Nations, a dialogue that still continues today.

While Lee and Booker’s TRHT is modeled after these commissions, it differs not just in title but also in strategy and scope.

“The commission is called the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation — not Reconciliation like most commissions, because here in America, there’s not much to reconcile, so we say transformation,” Lee said. “We can’t just say all of this damage has been done, when unequal education of Black kids or inequities in the health care system for African Americans still exist; you have to repair this damage.”

As it’s written, the resolution is not exclusive to Black Americans but also addresses the historical abuse of Native Americans, forced removal of Mexican migrants, xenophobic laws enacted toward Chinese immigrants, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, the brutal annexation of Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and the colonization of the Pacific Islands.

“It has a broad reach; the anti-Black racism is at the heart of the resolution, but also we understand that all groups suffer from exposure to racism,” Gail Christopher, executive director of National Collaborative for Health Equity who also helped in drafting the TRHT resolution, said. “So we had Native Americans, Latinx, Asian Americans, Pacific Islander, and immigrant populations all represented.”

Ultimately, the TRHT commission is aimed at educating the public and figuring out ways to heal from the system built on historical atrocities. Christopher describes the US Commission as a unique framework designed to focus on five pillars: narrative change, racial healing and relationship building, separation, law, and economy.

Narrative change: The manifestations of racism have not historically been part of the national discourse. Americans don’t necessarily understand or acknowledge the true history of chattel slavery and how other systems of oppression inform policies — such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigrants from becoming US citizens, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which allowed labor unions to discriminate based on race.

The commission could present a change in narrative through school curricula, news media, movies, radio, digital media, gaming platforms, and memorials, said Marcus Hunter, a professor of African American studies at the University of California Los Angeles, who also helped draft the TRHT resolution. A key component of the legislation would establish a national archive that will serve as a digital “repository of accountability,” designed to maintain an accurate snapshot of the last 400 years of racial injustice, which universities, colleges, and schools across the country can access.

Hunter himself said it wasn’t until he was doing research on his book on reparations that he learned about the original population of enslaved Black people who came from West Africa.

“They were judges, teachers, healers, lawyers, nurses — so how is it that I’ve never even received the truth of their population in school?” he said. “That’s why having a truth commission is important, because once you are able to establish the facts as they are, then whatever policies that you have can be transformative.”

Racial healing: Once the truth is told, it’s important to recognize the harm done by systemic racism. The commission will make an effort to bring historically underserved communities together to work in solidarity in safe spaces.

“It’s not a divisive approach; it’s not a traumatizing approach,” Christopher said. “It is about building our capacities and our skills to put racism behind us and to see ourselves in the face of each other.”

The truth commission, once established, plans to implement the work that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) has done with more than 100 practitioners who are skilled in facilitating racial healing approaches.

Separation: Historically racist policies like redlining, the government-sanctioned effort to intentionally segregate communities of color by labeling their neighborhoods “red” in residential maps, still has environmental, economic, and health repercussions today. A 2019 study that examined 108 urban areas across the country, for instance, found that 94 percent of historically redlined neighborhoods are disproportionately hotter than the rest of the neighborhoods in their cities.

The commission aims to study, dismantle, and overhaul policies and infrastructure that perpetuate the legacies of segregation that are still apparent in America’s education system, immigration policies, and health care systems.

Law: Laws have historically been created to punish marginalized Americans. This is seen in the over-policing of communities of color as well as mass incarceration of Black people. If established, the TRHT commission would also work to overhaul criminal justice and education policies at the local, state, tribal, and federal levels — redressing the racial hierarchies baked in the system.

Economy: Throughout much of history, financial gain and corporate profit have been the driving force of the oppression of people of color — from taking sacred tribal lands to extract fossil fuels, to exploiting immigrant farmworkers for unconscionably low wages. The commission would work to break down racist imprints in the labor force and equitably expand educational opportunities for all communities.

While TRHT’s goals may seem complex and ambitious, the legislation is just a starting point to creating the commission and tackling the larger systemic issues entrenched in America’s fabric. The commission could also be a door-opener to a better understanding of the need for reparations.

“You want the soil to be tilled,” Hunter said. “When you plant the seeds of reparations, you want it to yield a positive outcome for everybody. And so it is the truth telling, and it is the healing work that tills the soil for this needed and necessary and required accountability.”

How the commission resolution is garnering support

In the past few years, there has been a growing interest in creating a US truth commission. The 1619 Project, led by the New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, fueled a national conversation about how America’s founding begins with slavery. Add to that the movement in response to the police killing of George Floyd and a pandemic that’s disproportionately killing Black and brown people.

Now could be the time for Lee’s commission to come to fruition. The bill has garnered more than 100 co-sponsors in both the House and Senate, and has been endorsed by over 240 organizations and individuals, including the #BreatheWithMe campaign, Leadership Conferences on Civil and Human Rights, and the NAACP. Even celebrities like Stevie Wonder and Billie Eilish have promoted the idea of such a commission to address America’s underlying inequities.

Moreover, the January 6 insurrection in which pro-Trump extremists stormed the US Capitol, waving Confederate flags and other racist symbols, became further proof that speaks to the sense of urgency behind the commission. Supporters of the TRHT resolution and activists see the country’s current political landscape as a window of opportunity to tackle the nation’s rising racial tensions. Hunter, for instance, has been using the insurrection as the core narrative when calling Republican representatives to campaign for support for the commission.

“Part of what I was able to demonstrate effectively in my calls is that you see what happened in January 6 and how much of this whole issue of racial healing is also a national security issue,” Hunter said. “And that the longer we delay this, the more we leave ourselves vulnerable to future attacks, to future acts of aggression and violence, because there is just a deep need. It’s not a Democrat issue. It’s not a Republican issue. It’s an American issue.”

With a new Democratic majority in Congress and President Biden’s commitments to racial justice, Lee is hopeful to get the necessary support needed to bring America’s first truth commission into fruition. Throughout her life, and especially in her 22 years in Congress, Lee has had to witness the underlying legacies of oppression and injustice that many Black Americans, and other people of color have had to endure — but that has never been fully addressed at the federal level.

“People have to understand the whys of systemic racism to understand today, and know that we’ll never really have true liberty and justice for all until the historical facts are made public, and the truth is told,” Lee said. “Only then we can heal, because there’s no healing without the truth.”