Like many of you, I’ve been watching the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. From Chairman Bennie Thompson’s opening comments at the first hearing on June 9th to the July 21st closing comments from Vice Chair Liz Cheney, I’ve watched them all. The hearings have been riveting, not a bombastic spectacle, but a tempered, dispassionate presentation of what led to the event, what happened on that day, and what has happened subsequently. We are beginning to fully understand how this assault on American democracy unfolded and what would have been the ramifications had it succeeded. I believe we’re doing this, in part, so our country might recognize the toxic political partisanship that almost destroyed us, address it, and, hopefully, begin to heal.
Racism, visibly and invisibly, has also divided our country. We’re just beginning to see this. So, imagine if we had the same type of examination of slavery, segregation, and the overall impact of racism on America—the same level of thoroughness to examine how people of color have been treated, and the impact of that treatment on disparate groups and on the country.
How would that story be told?
The January 6th hearings are so compelling because real people are telling their own stories. You can relate to, even feel, their emotions. Because so much of the foundation of racism happened centuries ago, telling this story will be more difficult, but I think it can still be told.
For example, without video and first-hand accounts, how would the terror of having your land taken and your people exterminated be told? Maybe those currently living in war ravaged countries in which predators have come to take their land could describe their experience. Could they be modern day proxies for what happened in America centuries ago? I think so. And coupling those stories with disclosures from people living today who were taken to Indian boarding schools could bring to life the full trauma of that experience.
Without people alive today, how would the committee capture the horrors of being kidnapped, brought to a foreign land, and forced to work from before sunrise to after sunset in atrocious conditions? Perhaps some of those brought to this country in current times as domestic workers and then enslaved by their employers could tell their stories. I know, it’s not the same, but perhaps hearing those agonized accounts will offer insights.
Then the committee could listen to real first-hand experiences in Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories. These are actual accounts, recorded interviews with the formerly enslaved, done between 1932 and 1975, and stored at the Library of Congress. But even those accounts may not reveal the complete truth since some suggest that the experience of oppression and fear of white people may have caused some formerly enslaved people to alter their stories so as not to fully incriminate their oppressors and be punished for telling the truth. Yes, fear even decades after slavery had ended.
While some parts of the story of racism would have to be approximated or told via recordings, that would not be the case in the discussion of Jim Crow laws, and the 20th and 21st century treatment of people of color in America. The reality of disparities in education, health care, housing, the in/justice system, and overall economics could be told by real people today. Some might be elders who were taken out of schools in the 8th grade to work the fields, or soldiers returning from World War II or the Korean War wanting good neighborhoods and housing for their families, or some might be contemporaries, such as the families of those who are now incarcerated for offenses – remember three strikes you’re out — that are currently touted as desirable entrepreneurial opportunities and some witnesses might be people simply seeking unbiased appraisals today of the value of their homes or quality public schools for their children.
The truth can be told if America is ready to hear it, learn from it, and then change — heal.
Racism is a deep wound that continues to affect our country. A wound/a disease cannot be accurately treated until you know what caused it and then address it correctly. That is what the January 6th committee is attempting to do – find the truth, repair the fissures in our country, and, hopefully, heal.
We’ve never had a national conversation about race. The closest we’ve come, that I’m aware of, is the President’s Commission on Race established by then-President Bill Clinton in 1997. Have you heard of it? It was chaired by noted historian John Hope Franklin and charged with conducting town hall meetings, examining data, and creating solutions to address the racial divide. The intent was correct and the leadership stellar, but one of the first lessons in racial justice work is that intent and impact are two very different things. While well-intentioned, I don’t believe this commission had significant impact on racial justice. In fact, 25 years later, our inability to examine and discuss race and racial injustice seems to be worsening. Maybe the country wasn’t ready in 1997. I’m not so sure that it is now, but I know that when a group of Texas educators want to refer to slavery as involuntary relocations that’s a clear sign that truth is lacking. Obfuscation and denial continue.
Even in this post-Trayvon Martin, post-Barack Obama, post-George Floyd world of an awakening to racial injustice, are we ready for a Congressional Hearing on Racism? I believe, if done correctly and with full transparency, it would get us closer to the truth, closer to healing, but is America more primed now than it was in 1997? If the Congressional Select Committee on January 6th can be an example, we know that Congress can investigate a travesty against the country and can present its findings in a way that compels almost 20 million Americans to watch. Now, we’ll just have to wait to see what happens because of all the revelations. If the country can handle the truth about January 6th, learn from it, and then act, maybe it’s ready to handle the truth about racism.