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The Rights Track Sound evidence on human rights

Does America need a Truth Commission?


In Episode 12 of The Rights Track, Todd talks to Dr Karen Salt and Dr Christopher Phelps from the University of Nottingham about human rights in America through the lens of race. He asks his guests whether a Truth Commission might play a positive role in giving Americans the opportunity to pause for thought about some of the underlying problems facing American Society today.

0.00-09.32

  • Todd introduces this special final episode of Series 1 of The Rights Track by introducing his two guests and by explaining a little about why he wanted to take some time to discuss recent events in US in respect of violence against African Americans. He references two articles he has written - one on the statistical evidence surrounding the disproportionate levels of violence towards Black Americans and the second on his belief that America ought to consider setting up a Truth Commission to examine some of the underlying problems facing American society. He goes on to explain what a Truth Commission might look like.
  • Todd references a recent UN report by the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent which also recommends a human rights commission .
  • Karen talks about the importance of finding the right way to talk about race, violence and related issues. She mentions her research project, The Trust Map which is looking at how trust can be repaired within minority communities. She says it’s important to think not just about a Commission, but about what would follow on from it.
  • Todd mentions President Obama’s Commission on Police Violence - Dallas Police being held up as exemplar and yet violence happening on the city’s streets in recent months.
  • Karen points out that problems like these are not solved overnight and the unrealistic expectations placed on Obama as a black President to achieve more because they assumed that America was “post racial” as soon as a black President was elected. She says she values the idea of people having the opportunity to share their experiences and knowledge about relevant events without necessarily having to quantify it.

09.32-20.00

  • Christopher Phelps talks about America’s history of slavery and the so-called Jim Crow racial segregation and the challenges of modern day in spite of civil and political rights developments. He mentions earlier Commissions including the Kerner Commission looking at riots in the 1960s and the Commission that looked at the Watts Riot in 1965. He thinks a Truth Commission might be useful in gathering information and helping to get people talking about these issues in a constructive way but expresses concern that the circumstances and conditions for it, unlike in South Africa, may not lend themselves to it being effective.
  • Todd talks about how a Truth Commission might work and where the data might come from and what he would want to see emerge from it by way of serious reform and a hard look at the relevant institutions.
  • Karen reflects on the place where she grew up and the impact of issues like drugs and violence on the local community and the ways in which the community was acknowledged but not integrated.

20:00-26.00

  • Christopher explains a little more about his thoughts on the South African Truth Commission and how the political and social inequality in South Africa differs from that in the United States making him suggest that a process of reconciliation would be fraught. He points out how civil rights issues specific to a country become intertwined with international human rights and how civil rights groups use international laws around human rights a.s a lever to change a situation in a particular country
  • Todd reflects on his own work showing the gap between the legal changes improving the rights of Black American i.e. right to vote, access to education etc. and the lived reality of persistent social, political and legal inequalities. He says this gap is often used to lobby for change.

26.00-end

  • The discussion turns to the Black Lives Matter campaign and Todd’s view that statistics clearly show disproportionate violence towards African Americans. Karen comments that there has been a continuous process of resistance through people’s day to day lives. She refers to US congressman John Lewis’s (she mistakenly says John Conyers’ but means Lewis’) use of the hashtag #goodtrouble on his Twitter account and a book called Necessary Trouble by Sarah Jaffe and the idea of what happens when you need to protest in a certain way to “trouble” the way certain issues are discussed. She points out that Black Lives Matter covers a wide and diverse range of groups not just groups looking at violence towards African Americans. She goes on to reference some of the sexual harassment allegations made against Donald Trump in the run up to the 2016 Presidential election and how that has prompted interesting and important discourse.
  • Todd compares the Black Lives Matter movement to the Occupy movement and the similar strategies they employed. The discussion moves to how founding documents like the Declaration of Independence are used in ongoing lobbies for change. Christopher Phelps talks about the interaction of economic and social rights with political and legal rights and the need to balance both. He says he hopes the protest movements that have erupted in recent years manage to effect changes to policy. Karen mentions the flaws that exist in some of the original ‘founding’ documents used in the States and goes on to talk about her work on Haiti and the challenges that America’s history with slavery pose for modern discussions on racial equality.
  • Todd reflects on the discussion and what it might mean for American history and for the future. He talks a little more about the role a Truth Commission might play. Christopher says that what could be happening in the States is a sort of ‘last gasp’ of people who don’t want to let go of the way things were. He says he’s optimistic about the attitudes of young people.
  • Todd talks about the positive stories and ideas that have emerged across Series 1 of The Rights Track and how Series 2 will talk to people using academic evidence on human rights in their work to make the world a better place.

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