The crisis of American democracy that burst into view on January 6 is rooted in our country’s long history of racism. To begin the work of repair, President Biden issued executive orders undoing many of the policies of the Trump administration and breaking new ground, like ending private prison contracts and embedding racial equity analysis in the federal bureaucracy. As important and welcome as these actions are, they are not enough. A crucial mistake recurs in American history: trying to move forward without reckoning honestly with injustice. We have an opportunity to break this pattern of forgetting. Remembrance and repair are not just morally necessary—they are the keys to saving our fragile multiracial democracy. Here we offer a plan to undertake that vital work.
Historically, we have done a poor job at holding political elites accountable. When white mobs overthrew democratically elected, multiracial governments in the South, bringing Reconstruction to a close in the 19th century, they won nearly a century of Jim Crow and a one-party, authoritarian South. The decades of lynchings and mob violence that followed were enabled by the very Hayes-Tilden compromise that Senator Ted Cruz had the gall to invoke on January 6, and, crucially, by Northern white exhaustion with confronting racism. Essentially, white moderates’ fervor for racial liberalism proved no match for white supremacists’ fervor for, well, supremacy. Today, we live with the results of that failure. We face a similar test now.
But it’s not just the aftermath of the Civil War; the guardians of Jim Crow, from police chiefs like Bull Connor to senators like Strom Thurmond, were never held accountable for the racial terror they enabled. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed as if this legislation could absolve decades of state and private vigilante violence. But for Black families that endured so much, there was no healing because there was no accountability. The heart of the country’s amnesia is the failure to grasp the truth that it took until 1965 to ensure the right to vote to African Americans.
Democracy is new and fragile, not established and stable, and agreement that people of color belong as full participants is persistently contested. The United States suffers from what James Baldwin referred to as “racial innocence,” a deliberate unwillingness to confront racial injustice, especially when it clashes with stated liberal democratic ideals. But the longer this country resists confronting who we really are, the more unstable our democratic institutions will become.
Democracy will not be safe unless there is a truthful reckoning that accounts for both recent and historical wrongs. We propose that the Biden administration adopt a strategy to establish a new, shared narrative for the country. The goal of a truth and reconciliation process in the United States should be to establish a new civic consensus. Not everyone will be part of such a consensus—but a consistent campaign can help move racist ideas to the margins of public discourse and establish shared norms and understandings that are necessary for democracy to be preserved. Evidence from Chile and other countries shows that government-sponsored efforts of this kind can change hearts and minds in significant and lasting ways. What might an effort to achieve this, led by government but involving broad swaths of civil society, look like?
No single truth and reconciliation commission is likely to succeed, because different communities of color have experienced different kinds of oppression. Each experience merits its own attention and forms of redress. We suggest four potential commissions that could be established by the Biden administration or Congress, and spur broad engagement by civil society.
First, through executive action, Biden could establish a Public Education and Monuments Advisory Council, comprising historians, community members, and experts. Monuments tell a story. The Advisory Council would be responsible for conducting a survey of monuments, developing criteria for monument removal, and commissioning monuments to honor a more diverse range of history makers. This project can learn from Bryan Stevenson’s pathbreaking work with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and to mark the sites of lynchings of Black people throughout the South. The council should focus on engaging the broader public in an educational dialogue about monuments and monument removal. The council could work with local task forces comprising community leaders, artists, and activists in every state in which a monument is slated to be erected or removed. Remaking our public space to tell the truth about our history is a crucial part of recovery.
Second, federal action on reparations for African Americans is long overdue. Representative John Conyers introduced a bill to study reparations every year from 1989 through his last term in Congress in 2017. This nation was built, and fortunes were made, through the uncompensated, enslaved labor of Black people. Reparations is a core part of the platform of the Movement for Black Lives. The bill to study reparations, now sponsored by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, had a record 173 cosponsors in the last Congress, and it got a hearing for the first time in 30 years. The Biden administration could build on this momentum and establish a Presidential Commission on Repair and Justice to study reparations and recommend different reparations policy proposals for action by Congress.
Also foundational to the American story is genocide against Indigenous people. Indigenous leaders and activists must be engaged to consider a range of potential remedies. One example is legislation introduced by former Representative Deb Haaland—President Biden’s nominee for interior secretary—and Senator Elizabeth Warren to shine a light on one of the crimes committed against Indigenous people: the “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States,” designed to expose “the painful and traumatic history of genocide and forced assimilation by the federal government,” as Haaland put it. Child separation—deliberately and cruelly revived at the border by the Trump administration—has deep roots in American history that are not understood by most Americans.
Finally, Trump’s campaign and presidency were powered by stoking hatred against immigrants, from remarks about “shithole countries” to policies like the Muslim ban and indiscriminate deportations. To recover, a high-profile “Statue of Liberty Commission” should publicly acknowledge the human impact of family separation, caging children, turning away refugees, and other draconian policies. This commission, chaired by the attorney general, should hear from affected families and be authorized to recommend criminal prosecution for those responsible (potentially including Trump administration official Stephen Miller) and restitution to the people and families that were harmed. The commission would be given the power by Congress to offer restitution to victims, including allowing deported families to return and paying financial compensation. This is a matter of justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators—but it’s also necessary to prevent future abuses.
Racial reckoning will be hard. Psychologist Carl Jung argued in a different context that healing trauma requires facing up to hard parts of ourselves. “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”
Racial reckoning through truth and reconciliation–style commissions of the kind we propose is not by itself a complete answer to what ails our democracy. There must be other measures—including expulsion of members of Congress who collaborated with insurrectionists, an end to the filibuster, expanded voting rights (through the For the People Act), statehood for DC, immigration reform, and equitable economic recovery. But narrative is a form of power. Trump showed the country that narrative can be driven from government in a way that changes people’s behavior and creates the conditions for sweeping policy changes. His false “Stop the Steal” narrative had such power precisely because it built on the founding tradition of denial of citizenship to Black Americans and denial of the legitimacy of Black votes. The big lie about voter fraud nearly subverted our democracy. If Democrats do not seize the moment to invite Americans into a new story that reckons with both contemporary and historical racism, our democracy will continue to teeter on a knife’s edge.