Evanston resident Debbie Hillman reports.
Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That the Congress—
(1) affirms on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship, the United States long-overdue debt of remembrance to not only those who lived through the egregious injustices enumerated above, but also to their descendants; and
(2) proposes a United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation to properly acknowledge, memorialize, and be a catalyst for progress toward jettisoning the belief in a hierarchy of human value, embracing our common humanity, and permanently eliminating persistent racial inequities.
These are the final paragraphs of a Congressional resolution to create a national Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation commission. The commission would be an official framework for Black Americans to tell their truths about personal and intergenerational injustices and dehumanization—and for the rest of the U.S. to listen.
House Concurrent Resolution 100 was introduced into Congress by U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (CA) on June 4, 2020. In her press release Rep. Lee stated that "The Commission will examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color, and how our history impacts laws and policies today."
Evanston’s congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL9) is a co-sponsor of the resolution, as are six other Chicago-area members of Congress (Rep. Bobby Rush, IL1, Rep. Robin Kelly IL2, Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia IL4, Rep. Sean Casten IL6, Rep. Danny Davis IL7, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi IL8).
Recently, in an interview with Michael Moore (Rumble Episode 93, June 18, 2020), Rep. Lee said she hoped that the Commission would "make the link" between the first slave ship in 1619 and the lives of African-Americans today—police murders, mass incarceration, less than living wage jobs, frontline workers without PPE, family wealth gap, etc.
Although the Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation is not formalized or funded in the resolution, the context is laid out in rich historical detail and in poignant language. Since Rep. Lee is African-American, the impetus for the resolution is the 401 years of African-American oppression. But numerous other populations of color are identified in examples of “government actions” perpetrated “against” them, including Native Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Latino Americans, Chinese, Japanese Americans, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific populations.
Rep. Lee seems clear that she wants the Commission to document how the U.S. government itself, through the Constitution and federal laws, rules, and norms, dehumanized and oppressed people of color. She told Moore, "You can have your own racist attitudes. Just don’t let it play out in policy. Leave us alone.”
Such official listening and documentation seems to be gaining momentum across the country. At least two other candidates for federal office have proposed similar commissions.
Just this week, a first-time candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives (NY16), Jamaal Bowman, declared victory in the Democratic primary, defeating a long-time incumbent. Mr. Bowman is a former principal of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in the Bronx. His platform includes a plank calling for a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission "to investigate, document, and assess the federal government’s role in America’s history of racism.”
Mark Charles, an independent candidate for U.S. president, announced his candidacy in May 2019 by calling for a “truth and conciliation commission on race, gender, and class." He calls it a “conciliation” process because, he says, 'we the people' has never meant all the people. We can’t have a re-conciliation if we’ve never had an agreement in the first place. Charles is a Navajo author and a preacher who has witnessed truth and reconciliation meetings in Canada (regarding Canada’s removal of Native children from their homes and placement in boarding schools).
Rep. Lee’s Resolution does not mention reparations specifically, but she is clearly familiar with the history of truth and reconciliation commissions. She cited 40+ such commissions to Michael Moore, recognizing their mixed success. The primary purpose of her Resolution is to create a “commission of people who will begin to set forth the historical context and record” of U.S. policies—“government laws that were based on African-Americans being 3/5 of a human being.”
“We’re not gonna get too specific under this administration,” Rep. Lee said in terms of the commission’s mechanics. “We don’t want them to take this commission, put their people there, and destroy it.” Lee envisions the process starting at the local level, with local town hall meetings on racism, which she recognizes are already taking place around the country.
As an example of how the commission’s process might proceed at a local meeting, Rep. Lee cited lynching. People could testify: "Did they have relatives who were lynched? What is the intergenerational trauma, the racial trauma that’s resulted? How do we fix that," she explained.
Like the purpose of any official hearing, the purpose of having such an historical record is to bring everyone together, on the same page, at a new starting line. Mark Charles calls this a “common memory”. The Haudenosaunee, whose Great Law of Peace was the model for the U.S. Constitution, call it the Consensus of One Good Mind. Rep. Lee talks about helping “uninformed people who are all of a sudden seeing the light understand."
Evanston's fifth ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, who introduced a resolution to City Council for a local reparations initiative (the first in the country) that was passed last November, says she appreciates Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky's leadership and co-sponsorship of the resolution and her decades of advocacy for Black lives, but that the resolution must be paired with HR-40, which establishes a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans.
"This resolution is an overdue first step towards redress in our nation," said Rue Simmons. "It has the potential to bring monumental change if it travels with an action plan for repairing 401 years of terror against the Black community: kidnapping, torture, enslavement, lynching, Jim Crow, redlining, war on drugs, mass incarceration, blatant and micro racial aggressions, and and now recorded public lynching. These are crimes against humanity. This has been the lived experience of Black America. We are tired, we are not okay, we want an authentic apology which includes a commitment to changed behavior and an action plan. This resolution should travel with HR-40, anything less than reparations is an inadequate apology for the wrongs against the Black community that are not up for debate."
As of June 26, 2020, there are 131 co-sponsors of Rep. Lee’s Resolution, representing bi-partisan support. Passage in the U.S. House of Representatives will require 218 votes.
“We’ve got to tell the story — so people understand why Mr. Floyd could get killed by the police,” says Rep. Lee.
About Debbie Hillman
Debbie Hillman is a long-time resident of the Nichols neighborhood, a Chicago native, and a lifelong democracy activist. She is a retired gardener, currently working full-time on U.S. food-and-farm policy.
Comments for this article were also solicited from Cong. Schakowsky, as well as two long-time residents of Evanston, a restorative justice practitioner and a grief psychologist who frequently serves as an expert witness in cases of human rights trauma. Unfortunately, as of publication time, their comments hadn't been received.
HR-40 is the bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX) in January 2019 to create a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. Both Rep. Barbara Lee and Rep. Jan Schakowsky are co-sponsors of HR-40. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is also a co-sponsor of House Concurrent Resolution 100.
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