Does the United States need a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) to address the nation’s legacy of racial injustice? Many Americans seem to think so, and public calls for a TRC in the United States have become a routine part of the collective response to incidents of racial unrest in recent years. TRCs emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as mechanisms for uncovering and redressing patterns of wrongdoing in societies torn by repression and violent conflict. I am sympathetic to calls for a TRC in the United States, but I remain soberly aware of the challenges that such an undertaking would confront. In TRCs’ work, both truth and reconciliation can be sticking points. The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the responses it generated, as well as controversies over antiracist curriculum in K-12 classrooms, demonstrate that the truth about US histories of racial injustice remains a matter of deep disagreement among Americans.
Things get no less contentious when we shift our attention to reconciliation. Many Americans dismiss racial reconciliation as a white fantasy—an overly touchy-feely goal, too disconnected from any material considerations that might improve the lives of black Americans who have borne the brunt of segregation, discrimination, and other varieties of racial injustice. Even among those who are less dismissive of reconciliation, it has become nearly a cliché to proclaim that there can be no reconciliation without truth. That slogan certainly expresses a noble sentiment, but I aim here to examine the relationship between truth and reconciliation more closely. Truth about our nation’s racial past is a prerequisite to any reconciliation worth having, but all varieties of reconciliation are not made alike. My focus here, then, is on a worrying variety of reconciliation—viz., false reconciliation.
Scholars across multiple disciplines have offered a variety of accounts of reconciliation—what reconciliation is, under what conditions it should be sought, why it is valuable, and how it can be achieved. I contend, though, that false reconciliation threatens to undermine any attempts at truth and reconciliation that Americans might embark upon. To further flesh out my account of false reconciliation, I turn to James Baldwin, who identifies a longstanding and dominant narrative about race in the United States, and finds a contradiction at the heart of that narrative.
In his 1951 essay “Many Thousands Gone,” Baldwin adopts a rhetorical “we” to describe the shame that he contends white Americans, and indeed America itself, have projected onto black Americans throughout the nation’s history:
Shameful; for he was heathen as well as black and would never have discovered the healing blood of Christ had not we braved the jungles to bring him these glad tidings. Shameful; for, since our role as missionary had not been wholly disinterested, it was necessary to recall the shame from which we had delivered him in order more easily to escape our own.
On the one hand, this dominant narrative that Baldwin has identified suggests that the captivity and forced labor imposed on enslaved people of African descent was for their own good, insofar as that imposition also resulted in their supposed civilization—along with their salvation via conversion to Christianity. On the other, white Americans grapple with the unsettling realization that, notwithstanding all pretensions to benevolence, the kidnapping and forced servitude inflicted on people of black African descent in the United States was a violent, world-historical crime.
Baldwin contends that white Americans have frequently resolved this contradiction by projecting their shame onto African Americans. This projection of shame lies at the heart of what I have termed false reconciliation, which replaces truth with lies—the lie, on Eddie Glaude Jr.’s reading of Baldwin. That lie fails to account adequately for the injustices that African Americans have suffered, or the culpability of those white Americans who have perpetrated those injustices or benefited from them. Moreover, it repeats and reinforces all of the worst stereotypes that, throughout US history, have characterized black Americans as inherently inferior and even subhuman. Glaude’s Begin Again begins with this vignette: Baldwin suggests to an audience of Howard University students that one of the lie’s greatest tragedies is that so many black Americans themselves might come to believe it.
The projection of shame and guilt prompted by this lie has a long history in the United States, and in recent years various scholars have documented different spheres of public life where I see that projection at work. In The Condemnation of Blackness, Khalil Gibran Muhammad offers a history of the purported association (still widely held by many Americans) between blackness and criminality: This association arose post-Reconstruction in response to African Americans’ struggles to find a secure place in American society—particularly in the nation’s rapidly industrializing cities. During this period many white Americans—social scientists, progressive reformers, journalists, and avowed white supremacists alike—posited ideas about alleged black inferiority, criminality, and cultural pathology as explanations for African Americans’ struggles to take advantage of the many opportunities that American cities supposedly afforded. The still-widespread association between blackness and criminality arguably contributes to the higher rates at which police detain and arrest African Americans even today.
Moreover, as Richard Rothstein documents in The Color of Law, discriminatory housing policies in the twentieth century were promoted to white homeowners on the premise that African Americans’ presence constituted a menacing threat of imminent “invasion” of safe, stable white neighborhoods. Housing discrimination largely locked African Americans out of the rapidly growing suburbs through the mid-twentieth century, thus also effectively denying them the increases in wealth that resulted from the appreciation of home values in those suburbs in subsequent decades. To this day, the median net worth for black families is only about 12.5% that of white families, owing largely to the appreciation of suburban home values that disproportionately benefit white Americans.
In the above passage, Baldwin invokes Christian theological terms—as he does in so much of his writing—in his diagnosis of what I am here referring to as false reconciliation. The theological dimension of Baldwin’s writing suggests that deploying theological resources might be an effective means to root out false reconciliation and create a space in which Americans can replace it with the real thing.
Following Baldwin’s lead, I turn in my thinking about truth and reconciliation to an unusual source—New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan’s work on parables. The centerpiece of Crossan’s account of parables, described in his 1975 book The Dark Interval, is a taxonomy of sorts, describing different genres of stories. Crossan places myth and parable at opposite ends of a spectrum. Myth, according to his taxonomy, holds the power to reconcile forces that at first seemed irreconcilable, while parable does the opposite: In Crossan’s words, “parable creates irreconciliation where before there was reconciliation,” and “brings not peace but the sword.”
Parable, according to Crossan, holds a subversive power to upend broadly shared assumptions about the world and about the social structures through which people interact with each other in the world. Given myth’s function of reconciling the irreconcilable, we might at first have thought that myth would be the more generative conceptual tool for helping us think about the function of a TRC. Instead, the specter of false reconciliation challenges us to recognize that the real work of a TRC must begin not with reconciliation but with irreconciliation—precisely the condition that Crossan contends parable is best suited to foster.
Of course, neither the members of a TRC nor its witnesses speak in parables or myths. My prescription here is not that TRC members or witnesses should self-consciously adopt the genre conventions of parable in their public statements or testimony. Instead, Crossan’s account of parables can help us understand how the testimony that a TRC solicits from citizens can create the possibilities for substantive social change. According to that account, parables shock listeners out of their complacency. A parable subverts listeners’ expectations by defamiliarizing the everyday, and exposing a gap between expectations and the reality of what unfolds in the telling of the story. In this gap lies the possibility for imagining the world and its social relations differently.
Irreconciliation evinces parallels with New Testament theologian Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologization. In Kerygma and Myth, Bultmann contends that if the New Testament is to embody any truth, then its proclamation must be separated from the first-century Ancient Near Eastern mythological worldview in which it is set, because that worldview is no longer credible. Likewise, in line with his oft-quoted insight about the concept of God, Baldwin might contend that a truer, more freeing, and more life-giving theological anthropology in the United States must be decoupled from the myth that posits a false reconciliation—secured at African Americans’ expense—between the guilt and pride at the heart of many white Americans’ self-understandings.
As we saw with the Ferguson Commission following Michael Brown’s death in suburban St. Louis in 2014, commission politics as a response to racial unrest is a fixture of the American political landscape. Political scientist Lindsey Lupo has documented a century’s worth of US riot commissions. By and large, these commissions have not instituted the substantive, durable change that racial justice advocates seek. Even the Ferguson Commission’s own report, citing Lupo’s work, expressed concern that their work not fade into the same irrelevance as their predecessors’. As more Americans call for a different kind of commission politics, the TRC remains an attractive alternative. From its outset, though, an effective TRC in the United States must account for the reality of false reconciliation and the need for a corresponding irreconciliation, or else it will likely hold no more hope for success than the riot commissions it may replace.
What might sowing irreconciliation look like? The parallel with demythologization suggests that one key task is identifying where narratives regarding black shame or purported black inferiority remain operative in American society. Consider white parents’ stated preference for “good neighborhoods” and “good schools.” Of course, just about all parents want to live in good neighborhoods and send their children to good schools. Even so, as Heather Beth Johnson and Thomas M. Shapiro have documented, white Americans frequently use seemingly neutral terms like “good neighborhoods” and “good schools” as code words, implicitly understood to be synonymous with whiteness (or the absence of blackness).
The characterization of predominantly white schools and neighborhoods as “good” continues to have demonstrable material consequences. Consider persistent racial disparities in home values and appraisals: Even when comparing similar homes (by age, square footage, number of rooms, and other factors) in similar neighborhoods (by characteristics such as residents’ incomes and education levels, or occupancy rates), homes in majority-black neighborhoods are appraised at, on average, 23% less than the values of comparable homes in comparable neighborhoods with few to no black residents. In such material inequalities, the conflation of goodness with whiteness curtails African Americans’ life prospects and opportunities.
Irreconciliation prompts white Americans to confront the racial assumptions at work in seemingly innocent terms like “good schools.” As Johnson and Shapiro observe, the racial assumptions embedded in such terms often go unacknowledged, even by their speakers. Skilled interlocutors can draw out those assumptions, but doing so requires knowing just when to actively press speakers for more information, and when to give those speakers the leeway to draw their own connections between their words and the unstated racial assumptions that underlie them. With the resources and institutional infrastructure required to facilitate large numbers of individual conversations, though, a TRC may be particularly well suited to engage white Americans in a dialogue that might reveal the racialized assumptions often at work in their language. Painstaking though the effort may be, if reconciliation is to succeed in the United States as its proponents hope, Americans must begin with the indispensable work of irreconciliation.