Here’s how the U.S. could take a cue from Germany on facing its history of racism, according to Bryan Stevenson.
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Bryan Stevenson saved 125+ wrongfully condemned prisoners. from death row through his work as a public interest lawyer,
Stevenson: Until we understand the truth of our history, every effort at repair will fail. Most people who ask the question, do you support reparations, don’t know what the word means. They think it’s some check. There is no sufficient check you could put in the mail. It means something much more dynamic, much more inclusive, and much more substantial.
In law school you’re taught if someone’s rights are violated, there have to be remedies. And the remedies are shaped by the nature of the violation, which is understanding what the motives are, what the intent was, what’s the extent of the injury, is central to what kind of remedy you impose. And I think we have too many people in this country who wanna talk about truth and repair, or truth and reconciliation, and truth and justice, and they wanna skip the truth part and jump right to the reparation or reconciliation part. I don’t think it works that way. It’s the truth part that’s actually the hard part. When we all have a consciousness of the truth, the repair part actually becomes so much easier.
So I’m resistant to any effort to reduce the project in front of us to something that allows us to skip the truth. Most people in this country know nothing about what happened to African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, when 6 million fled the American South as refugees and exiles. Most of us know nothing about the brutality of the domestic slave trade and the way thousands of African American families were pulled apart, where women were brutalized, and raped, where men were reduced to objects, where children were sold away from their parents. And until we know those details, we can’t appreciate what kind of remedy, what kind of repair is needed.
I go into courts and jails and my clients, who have been convicted of crimes, to be released have to go before a parole board typically and they have to acknowledge the wrongfulness of their crime. And they do that because the parole board won’t let them out if they still distrust them to acknowledge the wrongfulness of what they did. They don’t trust people who aren’t prepared to express remorse or regret. My clients need to do that to understand that wrongfulness so that they won’t re-offend. I think the same is true for this nation. I think we have to articulate the wrong that was done. We have to express remorse and regret. We have to feel some of the shame that we should feel about this history of racial inequality.
After apartheid in South Africa there was a recognition that they couldn’t get to a healthy place without a commitment to truth and reconciliation. There were convenings where people who had been victimized by apartheid and discouraged and traumatized by that bigotry could have place to give voice to it. If you go to Johannesburg today, their Constitutional Court is surrounded by the emblems, the monuments, the symbols that are designed to make sure no one forgets the inequality of apartheid. In Rwanda, there was a recognition that the country couldn’t recover from that horrific genocide without a process of truth and reconciliation, truth and repair, truth and justice. And you can’t spend a day in Rwanda without people talking to you about the genocide. It’s urgent to them that everyone understand what happened there. In Germany, you can’t go 200 meters without seeing markers, or monuments, or stones that have been placed next to the homes of Jewish families that were abducted during the Holocaust. The Germans actually want you to go to the Holocaust memorial. They try to change the narrative. There are no Adolf Hitler statues in Germany. Swastikas have been banned. There’s a consciousness to never again fall prey to the politics of fear and anger that gave rise to that Holocaust. In this country, we don’t talk about slavery, we don’t talk about the native genocide, we don’t talk about lynching, we don’t talk about segregation.
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