The ninth annual Emilio Mignone Lecture on Transitional Justice examined the legacy of slavery and racial violence in the United States. At the event, which was co-sponsored by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and the International Center on Transitional Justice (ICTJ), Sherrilyn Ifill ’87, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, joined Ford Foundation President Darren Walker in a conversation moderated by ICTJ president David Tolbert. In a wide-ranging discussion, Ifill and Walker spoke about how strategies of transitional justice could contribute to advancing racial justice in the US. 

Darren Walker (left) speaks with Sherrilyn Ifill '87Walker suggested that the idea of American exceptionalism is one of the primary impediments to achieving racial equality in the US. Models of transitional justice that were developed in post-war Germany and post-Apartheid South Africa have not succeeded in the US because there is widespread belief that America has not done “anything that bad,” he said. “Our exceptionalism impairs our capacity to do the truth telling that is necessary for justice…. We have constructed a romanticized, mythologized narrative of who we have been as a people.”

In her book, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century (2007), Ifill documented the history of lynchings on the eastern shore of Maryland and  explored the complicity of the American public in racial injustice. “I was interested in undoing the mythology that people learned about racial violence,” she said. “My idea was that lynchings happened in the woods and that it involved the Klan... [but] most of them actually happened downtown and very often outside the courthouse.” 

Examining two lynchings that occurred in 1931 and 1933, Ifill discovered that two young men were lynched before hundreds of members of the public. “The role of average people—for me, that’s the powerful piece that we have to unpack,” Ifill said. “The relationship between citizens and their observations of injustice is incredibly powerful, and it is a place of shame and a place of fear. And what that shame and fear produces is silence.” 

Walker and Ifill agreed that the first step toward changing the public’s understanding of racial injustice in this country is breaking the silence with truth-telling. A key element of that truth-telling is education, Walker argued. In Germany, school children learn a consistent narrative about WWII and the Holocaust; in the US, there are conflicting narratives about the Civil War and slavery. These discrepancies are further complicated, Ifill added, by the current political climate in which “the very notion of truth and facts are being contested by the highest leaders in the country.”

Ifill also stressed the importance not only of conversations about solving racial injustice but also of enacting policy solutions. “Policy in our country is made up of what things we value and therefore what we need to invest in,” Ifill said. “Transitional justice is not just about talking—there is a pivot to action where you identify what your values are and you make investments in the future of the country.”

Posted November 22, 2017