Watching the events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, I can’t help thinking about the Holocaust and post-war Germany. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I’ve spent years watching Germany wrestle with its dark past. It’s just one of many places that have made efforts to understand and compensate for a difficult history: For nearly three decades, countries as varied as South Africa, Rwanda, and the nations of Latin America and post-Communist Eastern Europe have been engaged in this process, often called “transitional justice.” That’s a broad term for the ways in which societies deal with the legacies of past injustice. Many believe that countries can only move forward once they have come to terms with their past in this way.
We’re accustomed to looking abroad for examples of such processes. But maybe — especially in light of racial tensions once again revealed in Ferguson — it’s time for us to begin thinking about what “transitional justice” could mean for the U.S.
Like many nations, Americans are reluctant to see ourselves in the same light as human rights abusers elsewhere. And yet our history includes a number of glaring atrocities, including the genocide of Native Americans and slavery and its aftermath. But the United States lags behind other societies in its efforts to confront and make amends for that legacy.
What, exactly would that entail? Justice means more than putting perpetrators on trial. The transitional justice process also encompasses methods focused on the victims and the wider society, such as truthseeking, memorialization, education, institutional change, and material compensation — that is, actions that seek not only to punish, but to encourage a shared historical understanding, begin to repair the damage done, and ensure that it can’t happen again.
A first step in the process seems simple: official acknowledgment. Yet societies are often hesitant to admit historical wrongdoing. Armenians have been trying for decades to get Turkish authorities to acknowledge that they were the victims of an organized crime. To understand what this means, I’ve tried to imagine what I would feel had Germany not accepted responsibility for the Holocaust. Official silence negates the experience of the victims, but it’s also damaging to perpetrator societies; it feeds denial and false narratives of history that allow tensions and resentments to persist.
Apology often accompanies acknowledgment. Both Australia and Canada have recently apologized to their aboriginal populations for decades of removing children from their families. German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s famous gesture in Warsaw in 1970, when he fell to his knees before a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, enraged many Germans who preferred not to face questions of guilt and responsibility. But this spontaneous gesture of atonement was enormously important to Holocaust survivors. In recent years, the Polish government has reversed decades of denial under its Communist government by acknowledging the participation of some Poles in anti-Semitic atrocities during World War II. Even the U.S. has managed an apology — in 1988, after a long campaign by Japanese-Americans, president Reagan apologized for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Yet the U.S. has never officially apologized for slavery or Jim Crow (and a 2009 “apology” to Native Americans, slipped into a Defense Appropriations Act, made little impact). Nor are there memorials to slavery or to the Native American genocide on a scale similar to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. That memorial, imperfect as it is, represents a conscious public acknowledgment by a perpetrator society of its own wrongdoing — both a rebuke to deniers and a purposeful statement that memory should not only be the job of victims.
One reason societies often resist officially acknowledging wrongdoing is the fear of being held financially accountable. Even years after the fact, victims or their descendants may ask for the return of confiscated property, bank accounts, or uncollected insurance claims, as they have in the case of the Holocaust, Eastern European communism, and the Armenian genocide. Reagan’s apology for our treatment of Japanese-Americans was accompanied by monetary compensation.
Financial reparations are in fact the most direct way to compensate victims for past suffering.
Germany was able to pay millions to survivors of the Holocaust who suffered quantifiable harm, and continues to do so (my father received a small monthly check that made an enormous difference, especially to a penniless new immigrant in the 1950s who had lost his entire family in the Holocaust; my mother, not a survivor, still receives a widow’s pension). Societies with fewer resources have offered other types of reparation: scholarships to victims’ children, affirmative action programs, and preferential housing, health care and other entitlements.
In the United States, however, we are more likely to insist that existing institutions already provide a sufficient foundation for improving conditions, as though we could erase the effects of past atrocity without undertaking any difficult changes. Except in the brief period following the Civil War, direct financial compensation for slavery and Jim Crow has never had a serious place on the national agenda. The most significant effort to compensate for the institutionalized legal, economic and social discrimination against black Americans that persisted into recent decades—a modern legacy of slavery and Jim Crow vividly described in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent Atlantic Monthly piece “The Case for Reparations” — was affirmative action, but it has largely been reversed by the Supreme Court. Very little has been done to directly address ongoing racial injustices such as the disproportionate incarceration of black Americans, which author Michelle Alexander has referred to as “The New Jim Crow.”
Transitional justice demands recognition that fulfilling responsibilities to the past requires more than merely lip service from a perpetrator society. Crimes against minority groups in any society bring benefits to the perpetrator group, and compensating for them can necessitate material sacrifice. But remorse often ends where personal sacrifice begins. Marco Williams’ 2006 documentary, Banished, tells the story of several black towns in the American South that were ethnically cleansed in the early 20th century. A black family from one of these towns sought to have a father’s remains reburied near their new home and was met with sympathy from the white residents of the town — until they asked the town to pay the costs. As in Germany, where polls over the years have shown significant minorities that deny an ongoing financial responsibility towards the victims of the Holocaust, many fail to see why they should be held individually accountable for the acts of their parents or grandparents. The benefits accrued through the injustices of the past are not always apparent.
One of the most important aspects of successful transitional justice, therefore, lies in illuminating not only the victims’ suffering, but the ways in which an entire society continues to bear the burdens of history. This helps elevate an important point: correcting injustice may require affirmative steps. The U.S. government and society need to recognize — and educate citizens on — the direct connections between continuing racial disparities in this country and the wrongs that gave rise to them, and to talk far more about the responsibilities we all share for repairing the damage. Perhaps Ferguson – which has revealed what can happen when we suppress these conversations – will finally motivate us to think about how to address the harms, whether through material reparations or otherwise. If we’re willing to start talking, we’ll find no shortage of role models for transitional justice throughout the world to help us take the next steps.
Belinda Cooper is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights and New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. This piece originally appeared on The Weekly Wonk.