Several Maryland Democrats are backing a plan to help the United States confront the legacy of centuries of racist policies: a reconciliation process used by South Africa after apartheid and by dozens of other countries after civil wars and other societal schisms.
The proposal would establish a federal commission on “truth, racial healing and transformation.”
It comes as protests demanding racial justice have spread throughout the country following the recent police killing of George Floyd, a Black man whose death led to a second-degree murder charge against a Minneapolis police officer. Two-thirds of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, now support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Many politicians and activists see the outpouring of support for better race relations as a potential turning point on police brutality, economic inequality, health disparities and other issues that disproportionately harm Black people and minority communities.
“This is an ‘inflection point,’” said U.S. Rep. John P. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who is white. “I think the expressions of outrage and anguish that you’re seeing on the part of the broad public reflects that this moment is different.”
A video depicting a white police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, and other recent incidents, have raised awareness among white Americans about police brutality and other ways that America disadvantages Black people.
Black people are very familiar with these forces, according to U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, a Black Democrat who represents a majority-Black district in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.
“This is not a new conversation” for my constituents, he said. “Black people have been living with the threat and the risk of violence at the hands of law enforcement for a very long time.”
Brown, like many parents, worries about what might happen to his son in a police encounter.
“The sense of urgency is not new,” he said. “However, I do think there is a renewed hope that this might be a moment in time triggered by those unfortunate events.”
A flurry of activity
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have responded to the outcry with a flurry of bills, many of which would carry out proposals that have languished in Congress for years.
The Congressional Black Caucus has drafted a multifaceted bill that aims to curb police abuse.
U.S. Rep. David J. Trone (D-Md.) and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) are sponsoring national “ban the box” legislation, which would bar prospective employers from asking about job applicants’ criminal history.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have unveiled a police reform package. And President Trump issued an executive order Tuesday to address police abuse.
Brown has received phone calls from three Republican colleagues to get his input on how to respond to the public outcry for police reform and related issues, a level of outreach he said rarely happens on Capitol Hill.
The proposal to create a truth and reconciliation commission has garnered much support within the Maryland delegation. Four of the state’s eight members of Congress are cosponsoring it: Brown, Sarbanes, Trone and U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin. All are Democrats.
All told, more than 125 Democratic members of the U.S. House support the effort, including civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia; U.S. Rep. Karen Bass of California, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; and U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. No Republicans have signed on yet.
The commission would examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism and discrimination against people of color. It would also look at how past federal government practices, throughout the country’s history, affect laws and policies today.
A similar process was undertaken after the end of apartheid in South Africa.
That country used a court-like body to investigate human rights violations and other injustices that occurred under its racial separation regime. But unlike the Nuremberg trials in Germany following World War II, the investigations did not lead to criminal prosecutions.
Dozens of other countries, particularly in Africa and Latin America, have undertaken similar processes.
“Where it’s been used effectively, it causes everybody to acknowledge that something wrong has happened,” Brown said. “It’s not about blame and fault.”
He added, “One of the challenges we have today is that, where you have the Black community demanding that inequities and disparities be addressed and eliminated, you have non-Black, white communities saying, ‘What do I have to do with it?’”
White residents often say they did not personally create racial disparities, a belief Brown said erects barriers to addressing centuries-old problems.
“By having a reconciliation, people are coming together and saying that, without fault, we are agreeing that we are living in an undesirable condition created [when] white people dominated, suppressed, abused and violated Black people. And today Black people continue to live under the suppression of that — and white people continue to benefit from that,” Brown explained.
“We have to have a reconciliation so that we understand you didn’t cause this, but we need everyone to understand and agree that this is not desirable, this is not fair, this is not just,” he said.
Sarbanes said he hopes the commission will provide the country with “truth telling” and recommendations for action.
He also hopes it will help the public maintain its focus on the racial divides that are driving protests and legislative proposals.
High-profile efforts to address racist policies have languished because the public loses interest after commissions and task forces complete their work, Sarbanes said. Meanwhile, Americans have developed a “culture of apologism,” in which they apologize for past actions without rectifying them, he said.
A truth-and-reconciliation process — especially one that is open to the public — could help Americans better recognize and address long-standing problems, Sarbanes hopes.
“The more outward-facing and public these conversations and discussions can be, the better,” Sarbanes said.
“There are so many stories to be shared and told,” he said. “When those stories and experiences begin to cascade and be shared, that could be the momentum we need to get ourselves to a different place.”
Trone, a white business owner who has long pushed civil rights and prison reform efforts, said the commission would help the public better understand the history of racism in the United States and how it has led to “a systematic structural failure in America.”
“It’s important for people to understand history of slavery, of Jim Crow, of mass incarceration and how it happened. It’s like in Nazi Germany after the war; they looked back and understood how horrible and unconscionable what happened was,” he said.
Trone said he recently hosted an online chat with two dozen young Black men from Gaithersburg, in his district. All said they had been pulled over by police because they are Black. One said he had also been stopped while walking, another had been confronted when drinking a beer in his backyard and a third had been stopped and searched while on a date with a white woman.
“It’s mind-boggling, but people need to hear this, because we don’t see how difficult this is,” Trone said.
Brown said he hopes reform will end the “warrior-gladiator” police mentality, in which officers see their job as pursuing “bad guys” instead of protecting a neighborhood and its businesses and residents.
The “contain and suppress” model Martin O’Malley used when he was mayor of Baltimore “is not the right model,” said Brown, who served as lieutenant governor when O’Malley was governor. O’Malley famously responded to violent crime and a high murder rate with a heavy-handed police presence and “zero tolerance” policy toward crime that led to soaring arrest rates.
“He wanted to save lives. Now in doing that, he did see homicides and crime go down, but he also saw that what went up was friction and tension between community and law enforcement. … In solving one problem, it exacerbated another problem.”
Brown said communities needed more support for social services to address poverty, homelessness, addiction and other underlying drivers of crime, not just an increased police presence.
The warrior mindset of police, Brown added, “leads to death.” He pointed to the police shooting last weekend of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man who was confronted for sleeping in his car at a fast-food restaurant in Atlanta.
Brown said the officers knew who Brooks was and had his vehicle information. Even if he had escaped from custody that night, officers could have found and arrested him later, Brown said. Instead, Brooks was shot twice in the back and died after surgery.
“What is the culture and mindset of law enforcement,” Brown asked, “that [allows Brooks] to go from a sleeping man to a dead man?”