Truth and Reconciliation: 150 Years and Still Needed

By Colin Vaida

The 150th anniversary of the end of the United States Civil War is rapidly approaching in the coming year. Even 150 years after the most devastating war in American history its causes and issues continue to endure. The United States is far removed from the death of 600,000 soldiers, but the remnants of racial oppression are certainly still present. Davidson College suffers greatly from the prejudice and a lack of inclusivity that has endured since the Civil War in American society. Though Davidson claims continual improvements in diversity across the board, the statistics fail to show the breakdown of different communities between people of color. African-American males, in example, are miserably underrepresented in our population and do not have a strong community of peers with which to fall back on, despite a general number that might indicate the contrary. The state of Davidson’s institutions and the United States’, however, is not surprising given the failure to reconcile a war that ended 150 years ago. Though the Confederate states would have argued the Civil War was fought for economic freedom and States’ rights, the entire economic system of the South relied on the capitalist sale of cash crops borne on the backs of slaves. Despite the loss of a generation over the issue of slavery, the United States has failed to reconcile its racial and ethnic difference. The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri represent the institutionalized racism and violence that African Americans face through the constant barrage of police violence. 150 years later, and reconciliation has yet to reach this nation, 150 years and the truth continues to be muddled, 150 years and yet we continue to ignore the need for real reconciliation.

The United States at the time of the Civil War was a nation that had been built by slaves. The capitalism that we know today emerged from discrimination and the use of slavery as a means for economic development. The United States post-Civil War used Reconstruction and economic development as a means for reunification and peace. In the short term, African Americans were given token concessions and were given some opportunity through institutions like the Freedmen’s Bureau, but with the end of Reconstruction in 1877 policy was put in place that continued the subjugation of people of color. Jim Crow laws excluded people of color from supposed shared public space and institutionalized racism as domestic public policy. Reconstruction failed because the United States government imposed a victor’s peace over the Confederacy.

The United States failed to seek justice and in return sought unification and economic growth as a means for peace, and at the time that made perfect sense. The North had won the war and imposed a development strategy that left Southern white elites feeling marginalized and embittering racial diversity. Those in the former Confederacy felt betrayed and when white Democrats returned to power they reinstituted a new slavery through Jim Crow and exclusionary electoral policies that institutionalized violence against minority peoples (especially African Americans). The failure of Reconstruction can be seen in the mass migration of Blacks away from the South between 1910 and 1930. The Great Migration highlights the movement of over a million African Americans from Jim Crow and the South in favor of opportunity in Northern urban centers like Chicago.

Contemporary peace processes often do not unfold in a way akin to reconciliation post-Civil War. The international community is often very involved in contemporary war issues, often requiring different ethnic groups to negotiate a truce and initiate truth and reconciliation. These processes often take the form of a truth and reconciliation commission like the ones in Rwanda or Sri Lanka. In these commissions perpetrators of violence can be held accountable, the foundations for equity and justice are discussed and a genuine peace process can begin. Though these commissions face justifiable criticism and questions of effectiveness, this process is generally helpful in the liberal world we live in. These commissions also emerge from negotiated peace settlements between multiple ethnic groups, which explains why the United States continues to fail in its reconciliation. Obviously over the last 150 years oppression in the United States has taken many forms and is not limited to the Civil War peace process. However, I find it plausible to argue that the inability to create an appropriate reconciliation process greatly contributes to the issues we have today. Though it is improbable that any such investigation or commission could be established in the United States, America would benefit from a discussion about truth, justice and reconciliation as it pertains to the Civil War.

The end of oppression in the United States based on racial prejudice is also unlikely to end even in the face of discourse and federal programs related to appropriate reconciliation and healing. This country’s institutions are inherently racist because of our history. Police brutality and the constant fear African-American communities endure due to this violence is a perfect example of a failure to reconcile racist institutions that have developed since the Civil War. The disproportionate failure of the U.S. healthcare system to serve people of color is astounding and is represented in health indicators across the board. An example of these health disparities is the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS in the Black community. In order to actually achieve reconciliation, institutions like these have to change, and Davidson College should be the first institution we change.

Image Source: U.S. National Park Service

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