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Breaking the Cycle: A Formula for Truth and Reconciliation in America

By Edward Quevedo
Truth and Reconciliation in America

It helped transform South Africa; now, truth and reconciliation in America should be on the table.

On the afternoon of July 16, 1964, a 15-year old African American named James Powell played with his friends in front of their Harlem homes. A neighboring tenement superintendent, using a high-powered hose to wash his building, turned the hose on the youths, reportedly saying, “I will wash the dirt off you [racial epithet]…”

The boys objected. Police were summoned. Off-duty New York Police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan arrived, drew his service revolver, and discharged it, striking and killing Mr. Powell in front of his friends and neighbors. Protests erupted in Harlem and cities across the country. In spite of the presence of so many eyewitnesses, in September, 1964, Lieutenant Gilligan was cleared of any wrongdoing.

America’s racial divide is nothing new

In the summer of 2020, we stew in the civil unrest unleashed by two shocking murders of African Americans: Mr. George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day, and Mr. Rayshard Brooks by the felonious acts of Atlanta policemen eighteen days later.

And so we come to Lie #1: This madness - the persistent scourge of predatory police, and the endemic racial biases underlying - will end here.

This Lie lives alongside many other awkward and haunting untruths – from the belief that new laws will fix things to a nationwide policing problem.

We are, sadly, not better than this. This, cousins, is very much who we, as Americans, are, and have been for centuries.

Let us first resolve as a given that the vast majority of good people serving as sworn police officers, as challenging and dangerous a line of work as can be considered, are heroes and selfless servants of the public. It is the acts of their bigoted unqualified colleagues upon which we must focus. To date, the actions and voices of protestors, speeches by leaders, hundreds of new laws, and the deaths of hundreds of our fellow citizens, have failed to shift our reality.

This failure arises from our studies refusal to authentically name our national condition: we have lived in an apartheid regime from the time of the Republic’s inception.

If you disagree, we would offer the words of the 1976 U.N. International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Its outlawed acts include any “domination by one racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

We have failed to make progress against these toxic social conditions because we have not correctly diagnosed our cultural illness. We have been treating only the symptoms.

The conditions of apartheid in America are more malevolent, persistent, and easily transmitted than any coronavirus. Recovery from the morbid prejudices that enable, support, and reward racism, classism, and sexism will require nothing short of a transformation of our national culture.

The fight against apartheid offers a template for healing America’s racial division

The good news here is that we know how to heal apartheid regimes and transform national cultures. In South Africa in 1994, a few years after Nelson Mandela was released from twenty-seven years of imprisonment, he was elected president of the nation. This, following 342 years of apartheid since the Dutch colonized the region in 1652.

Following the 1994 elections, civil society organizations in South Africa enacted The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act. F.W. De Klerk, the last South African President from the ruling white National Party, signed the Act into law.

The Act created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), designed to lead the country into the clear light of inclusion and healing. The commission conveyed the urgency of truth telling by all parties about the legacy of three and a half centuries of apartheid; and reconciliation - from a Latin connoting to make good again, or to repair. When true reconciliation occurs, the two formerly hostile sides become respectful of each other—and, ideally, friends.

South Africa sustained the work of the Commission. Its work continues to this day, thanks to the establishment in 2000 of the South African Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR). This body exists to “enable African and global communities to promote reconciliation and to apply human-centered approaches to socio-economic justice.”

The transition contemplated by the Act, the TRC, and the IJR was uneven. Killings and violence punctuated the 1994 presidential campaign, which suffered from fraud and intimidation tactics. The African National Congress (ANC) has been periodically beset by corruption during its years leading the nation.

Nonetheless, the TRC and the IJR succeeded in transforming the national culture of South Africa, three and a half centuries in the making. This is an object lesson for the United States at this singular moment in time, this long, hot summer of 2020.

The path to truth and reconciliation

If we are to craft a cultural transformation, we should first consider what is a national culture. We then must examine the action steps, means, and methods by which the TRC and IJR came about.

We invite you to consider this incisive definition of culture from Wendell Berry’s book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.

“A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. . . . It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well.”

With this definition in mind, we can turn to the skills and methods required to make our national culture new and more consistent with the “promise” of America.

The tools are those of statecraft - of classical diplomacy. The highest aim of the diplomat is to create the necessary conditions for peace by convening the needed regenerative conversations. Only by these means can a national culture transform.

More than anything else, the work of the diplomat is grounded in a simple, perhaps naive, fundamental verity: Love. This form of love is capably portrayed by a pair of Chilean philosopher scientists:

“Love is the only emotion that expands intelligence, creativity and vision; it is the emotion that enables autonomy and responsibility. Only in love can we be creative, fully human, and able to seek and perhaps find a common shared future.

Only in [this way] can people be relaxed and find the conditions conducive to engage in higher intelligent behaviors . . . . Learning, collaboration and creativity happen when we are able to function from a consciousness capable of including a world-centric awareness of ‘all of us.’”

The skilled diplomat convenes the disputants in reaching this elevated place of awareness, a place of ubuntu. Employing this method, the diplomat can help to realize the highest end point of the trade of statecraft: Peace & Reconciliation.

The case for a seeking truth and reconciliation in America

We must make this work of reconciliation our daily bread. We must establish an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and implement thereafter an enduring American Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. In this way, we can turn the tide and succeed in extirpating endemic racism and predatory policing at their roots.  These new institutions will play an essential role in this transition, especially if it is overseen by one more piece of civil society infrastructure, a new federal Department of Culture and Heritage.

Filled with hope, forged in conviction that this diplomatic model holds the promise to rebirth our national culture, and invoking the inspiring spirit of ubuntu, this work we simply must do. To do anything less is to abandon, forsake, and betray hope, love, courage, and honor.  

This article was co-written with Mackinzee Macho, an intern with the Regenerative Design Program at The Foresight Lab.

Image credit: Joseph Ngabo/Unsplash

Edward Quevedo headshot

Edward Quevedo is the Director of Regenerative Design, and the Head of Practice, at The Foresight Lab.

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