What America Can Learn About Reconciliation from Other Countries with Dark Histories

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U.S. President Joe Biden gestures to the crowd after delivering his inaugural address, while Vice President Kamala Harris looks, on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. During today's inauguration ceremony Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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t today’s inauguration ceremony, President Biden was quick to recognize the tough job ahead of him. How do you get a country torn apart by racism, domestic terrorism, an abysmal pandemic response and disagreements about basic facts on the same page? “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words,” he said. “It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity.”

Unity. We’ve heard that before. Over the last two weeks, Biden and other prominent politicians have said versions of “this is not who we are” as they’ve attempted to rally a nation reeling from the attempted insurrection at the Capitol. But to really make sense of the country’s embittered ideological divide, and attempt to move forward together, we have to admit that—actually—it is. As author Ibram X. Kendi recently pointed out in The Atlantic, “White terror is as American as the Stars and Stripes. But when this is denied, it is no wonder that the events at the Capitol are read as shocking and un-American.”

Before any meaningful steps towards unity can be taken, both among political leaders and the American public, we first need to understand what divides us, and that starts with how we view American history. And if we want to take accountability for the United States’ legacy of inequality and injustice, we can look to how other countries have reconciled after genocide and racial violence.

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eyond focusing on how Trumpism tore the country apart over the last four years, we need to go back to the beginning—to the country’s founding. As much as Biden and other politicians might think they’re being helpful by painting a flattering portrait of America, we need to accept that this portrait is not accurate. The United States was built by slave labor on Indigenous land decimated by genocide. That reality needs to be universally acknowledged and then denounced, not glossed over or whitewashed, in order to begin the process of meaningfully healing from this traumatic past.

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At every stage of American history, political leaders have done more to placate and coddle racists than they have to extend an olive branch to those harmed by their actions. It’s not surprising, then, that there’s a faction of white people in this country that identifies with and celebrates the idea of conquering and dominating everyone else, and they do not want to cede power or face the consequences of past abuses.

We need to agree that, as much as we may identify with America’s aspirations of being an egalitarian democracy, “liberty and justice for all” is not what American is. It’s what it wants to be, but it always falls short. To close that gap, white people in particular have to confront the fact that we benefit from a violent past and present. And then we have to join the fight for a society where everyone has the right to safety and access to quality education, food, water, housing and medical care regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic status or ability.

Melissa Merin, an Alameda educator and restorative justice practitioner, outlines the accountability process like this: “1) An understanding that something had happened that caused harm; 2) a willingness to understand who was affected and how so; and 3) a desire and commitment to work together to decide how to make things as right as possible.”

“The people who are stakeholders in these communities that have been aggrieved really, really need to be able to have the floor,” Merin says. “What that looks like sometimes is folks who are not stakeholders ... need to sit back and listen.”

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hat could step one of that accountability process look like? Realistic history curriculums in schools and putting an end to idealized narratives of America would be a place to start. The second step could be policies that explicitly set out to correct decades of discrimination in housing, education, medical care and virtually every facet of American life. In other words, reparations.

“We don’t talk about the genocide of Indian people in this country; we don’t talk about the genocide of African people and the taking of their language, their belief systems, and bringing them to a land that they didn’t know and having them be enslaved,” said Ohlone activist Corrina Gould in a recent episode of the podcast For the Wild. “We don’t talk about those things because people, I think, are scared to touch the pain. And I think what today is asking us to do is touch that pain, open it wide, and then to heal.”

Gould is the co-founder of the Sogorea Te Land Trust, an Oakland organization that seeks to “rematriate” the land and literally give it back to Indigenous people. In numerous talks and interviews, she’s pointed to the fact that Native Americans are often spoken of as if they’re part of America’s past, when they’re still here, contending with a genocide that’s not openly acknowledged as a genocide, along with centuries of broken treaties and ongoing disenfranchisement and erasure. Giving the Ohlone people their land back, and being good guests on that land by offering them material support, is a way to back up words with actions.

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merica has never created much space for mourning and rage at the injustices against Indigenous and Black people, which stands in contrast with the ways other countries have recovered from genocides and other atrocities. These approaches may not be perfect or universally celebrated, but surely they’re better than hundreds of years of gaslighting and sweeping facts under the rug.

After the end of apartheid, South Africa launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission where victims of human rights abuses could give their testimonies and receive reparations and rehabilitation; likewise, perpetrators could publicly admit wrongdoing and express remorse.

Germany paid reparations to Holocaust survivors. In contrast, the United States paid reparations to slave owners—not the people whose lives those slave owners stole. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson actually took back land that had been awarded to a group of formerly enslaved people in the “40 acres and a mule” campaign—and returned it to their former captors.

Another country torn apart by violence, Rwanda, has had an ongoing reconciliation campaign to heal from its 1994 genocide, in which the government encouraged Hutu citizens to slaughter over a million Tutsi ethnic minorities. Rwanda is in many ways a repressive state, but surely there’s something for Americans to learn from its practice of requiring all able-bodied adults to take part in monthly community service more than two decades later. Imagine what America would gain if all of us, regardless of class and ethnicity, pitched in to make sure our communities were clean and everyone had access to resources. That could be a real step towards unity and healing.

We can’t change the past, but we can chart a path forward. One of America’s undeniable truths is an enormous racial wealth gap; fighting for affordable education, accessible housing and fair wages are steps in the right direction.

What could that look like? “Black folks and Indigenous folks and people who have been interred in this country should be able to go to whatever school for free, always. [They] should be given grants—not loans—to buy homes to establish a little bit of generational wealth,” Merin says. “People in poor neighborhoods should be able to have access to good and healthy food, and it shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to get it. ... Those are things we know the country can do. It’s just a matter of whether the country is willing to do it. For example, is Joe Biden willing to lose some of his centrist social capital to wipe out school debt?”

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These aren’t examples from perfect societies; it’s unrealistic to think these countries have rid themselves of discrimination and hatred. But they’ve made sincere attempts to cultivate harmony—which is more than America has done in its own history. If we want to turn things around, their examples offer a place to start.