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Some lawmakers are calling for truth commissions on racial violence. How do these work?

These factors help commissions create effective solutions

- June 8, 2020

Black Lives Matter protesters across the United States are demanding accountability for the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody. Floyd’s death is one in a recent slew of killings of unarmed black Americans, a list that includes Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop and Tony McDade. Police violence toward protesters last week amplified calls for U.S. leaders and institutions to confront structural racism and anti-black violence.

One option that lawmakers are proposing is a truth commission. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) has introduced draft legislation for a national commission to “examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color.”

In Minnesota, Minneapolis Councilwoman Alondra Cano (D) has suggested a commission to study policing issues in her city. Civil rights leaders — including Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund — have also recommended that states implement commissions.

What can truth commissions offer? Our research shows that commissions can increase understanding of the past and present, and spur concrete changes, especially with buy-in from government officials, protest organizers and community leaders. But our research also indicates that commissions are highly political: It’s easy for those who oppose change to derail commissions — through neglect and direct interference, or by failing to follow up on investigations. Here’s what you need to know.

What is a truth commission?

A truth commission is a temporary body that studies different types and systems of violence. Generally, commissions investigate events in the past, but their work sometimes reaches into the present. Commissions collect documents, hear testimony and produce a final report to synthesize the information collected and offer recommendations to policymakers. Recommendations by past commissions include police and military reforms, reparations for victims, and museums and memorials.

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Most commissions emerge from political transitions — including from authoritarianism to democracy, and from civil war to peace. For instance, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, held from 1995 to 1998, came out of negotiations between the apartheid government and the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela’s leadership, as the country transitioned from a government run by a white minority to democracy.

However, truth commissions can also have a role outside of political transitions. Our research documents more than 80 national commissions since 1970, across diverse countries and situations.

What do commissions investigate?

Democracies have used truth commissions to study violence against a minority group — in Canada, for example, two commissions studied systemic oppression of First Nations peoples. In autocracies, governments have launched commissions to examine (or at least pretend to examine) their own practices, such as in Uganda.

Commissions have researched specific violations, such as forced disappearances in Guatemala; particular incidents, such as violence during the 2010-2011 Côte d’Ivoire elections; or a range of abuses over decades, such as in communist East Germany. Some countries, such as Brazil, have even had multiple commissions run concurrently, studying different issues at different levels of government.

The idea of a truth commission for racial violence in the United States is not new. The United States has actually had several commissions, though their scope and mandates have varied.

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Truth commissions in the United States

Most U.S. truth commissions have been at the city level — such as the ones in Boston, Detroit and Greensboro, N.C. The 2004 commission in Greensboro investigated the 1979 “Greensboro massacre,” where white supremacists killed five anti-Ku Klux Klan protesters and wounded 10 others.

There has been one state-level commission, in Maine, that examined separations of indigenous Wabanaki children from their families, between 1960 and 2013. Last year, Maryland legislators approved a commission to investigate racial terror lynchings of at least 40 African Americans, from 1854 to 1933.

The United States has held just one national-level commission. In 1980, Congress set up the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to study the relocation and internment of Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans during World War II. The investigation led to reparations, a public apology from Congress and education initiatives.

Designing a truth commission

The design of truth commissions is very important, in particular the level at which a commission is to operate and the breadth of issues and the period of time to be covered.

As previously mentioned, commissions can operate at the city, state or national level. In the United States, structural racism and violence are clearly national issues. Yet they generally play out at the local and state level — during police stops, in courtrooms and in prisons. While a city-level or state-level commission may not address the nation’s broader history of racism and violence against black Americans, it may be able to develop more concrete solutions for local circumstances. It may also be easier for interested individuals to attend and participate in hearings in their city or state.

Commissions can also vary in the breadth of issues that they address. A single-issue commission — to address police brutality, for instance — could help create a deeper understanding of that specific issue and suggest specific steps to resolve it. However, a potential risk is that people might then ignore related problems, such as over-policing, over-criminalization and mass incarceration of black Americans.

The time frame is also an important factor. A commission that examines decades or even centuries of abuses can illuminate a broader truth. But because many victims of historical abuses have long since passed away, some options for redress, such as reparations, would be more difficult to implement. On the other hand, too narrow a focus would not make clear the longer sequence of events that has led the United States to the current moment.

Of course, truth commissions cannot bring about change by themselves. Commissions work within wider processes of justice that unfold over the long term — through legislation, policy reforms, prosecutions, reparations and public education. It’s not enough for the United States to learn about the past; the critical next step for the country would be to act on what it learns.

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Kelebogile Zvobgo (@kelly_zvobgo) is founder and director of the International Justice Lab at William & Mary and a PhD candidate in political science and international relations at the University of Southern California.

Carla Winston (@Carla_Winston), a Baltimore native, is a lecturer (assistant professor) of international relations at the University of Melbourne.

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