Retrospective Reconciliation: Looking Back to Right Past Wrongs – Part 2

Heidi Burgess

January, 2021

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Full Transcript:


Slide 1.  Hi! This is Heidi Burgess. This video will talk about what I call “retrospective reconciliation” which refers to the processes that are used to look back in time to past wrongs, trying to determine the truth about what happened, and provide justice for the victims and perpetrators of those wrongs.

Slide 2.  I ended the last video with this slide, saying that Chip Hauss, quotes Desmond Tutu as “reconciliation isn’t cozy.” Chip went on to say) ”It doesn’t come quickly or easily. Indeed, achieving anything like reconciliation normally takes years or even decades. And, in a country like the United States, whose racism is etched into its entire history, the first signs of reconciliation will also have to constantly reinforced and nurtured if we want the chance to survive the challenges and setbacks we will inevitably encounter along the way.

Slide 3.  Let’s talk about the challenges for a moment.  First is the one I talked about earlier—the many people who at least today have no interest in reconciliation.  They are angry.  They are afraid.  They distrust the other side, thinking that their conciliatory gestures are tricks or traps and that any reciprocation will just lead to a double cross.  They have no respect for “the other” – maybe even seeing them as non-human. 

Slide 4.  But people can, and do, change. This picture was taken from an NBC news story about the Documentary “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America.” Daryl Davis is a Black musician who happened to meet a member of the KKK after one of his concerts.  According to the NBC reporter Adam Howard, “Davis began his crusade by asking himself the existential question: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?... Davis began to reach out to members of hate groups, and he found that the more willing he was to hear them out, the more open they became to embracing him. More than two dozen white supremacists have since renounced their ideology of hate in part because of Davis’ peace offering.”

This is one such story, but there are many others.

Slide 5.  Daryl Davis reaches out on his own.  But more often, people need help.  Dialogues are one way to get people to better understand with, and perhaps eventually work with the other(s). This picture and text is taken from one of Essential Partners’ “Impact Stories,”  This story is about a number of religious leaders and political leaders in Maryland who were all concerned about the “unraveling of the social fabric,” and they met together to talk about how they might start to heal their diverse community.  They proposed bringing different religious groups together in dialogue.

For us to heal the fissures in our community, we needed to learn how to connect across differences, listen to one another, and understand one another more profoundly,” said Reverend Dr. Turner. “We have to repair the broken trust that makes a community—and a democracy—possible.”

Using a train-the-trainer model, the project has now engaged more than 500 residents in “ healthy, open, honest dialogue about their experiences of racism and religious bias. People of all faiths and races talked about what connects and what holds them apart. They shared how they wanted to be understood and what they wanted to understand about one another. They talked about their convictions, hopes, and fears.”

John Sarrouf, co-Executive Director of EP observed of this effort “One of our mantras at Essential Partners is that community is an act of courage. It is our honor to stand alongside dedicated volunteers who are living out this courage.”

Slide 6.   Another way to get reluctant people to reconcile is to bring them together for purposes other than reconciling, so they can figure out on their own that the other side doesn’t have horns.  This can be done by what we on Beyond Intractability, call “joint projects.”  One of our grad students in 2003 wrote this article for BI on joint projects, and to my surprise, when I went to good old Google to find some newer examples, all that came up was this article and some related things on BI.  I’m sure I could do better if I came up with other search terms.  In that original article, Chris cited:

  • a Bilingual in the Galilee for Arab and Jewish Children, in which all classes are co-taught by an Arab and a Jew
  • a Philippine bakery that employs Muslims and Christians
  • a project to rebuild Albanian mosques in Kosovo by Jews, Protestants, Serb Orthodox, and Albanian Muslims,
  • the JAMAA project in Burundi, which encourages soccer games with teams composed of both Hutus and Tutsis

Slide 7.  And he pointed out, some even consider the European Union to be a kind of joint project, since it came about following World War II and has served as a galvanizing focus for former enemies.

Slide 8.  Other examples are not work, but play.  One of my former SCAR students wrote a beautiful case study on the  The Power of Music and Dance to Heal War-torn Societies: Case Studies from Brazil, Uganda, and Israel/Palestine. Other people have written about the use of sports to bring people together to establish the trust and relationships that are needed to start a reconciliation process.  I will list several of these articles in the references area.  

Slide 9.  Changing gears, I took this slide from our earlier Retrospective Reconciliation slide show.  In that, Guy pointed out that one of the things that affects how one approaches retrospective reconciliation is the nature of the conflict and the “wrongs” that are in need of mending.  Guy made this chart which suggests that there are two variables that are particularly important.  First is the question of whether the wrongs are in the past (as in slavery or apartheid or Cambodia’s “Killing Fields,”) or whether they are contemporary or ongoing. 

Now he shows this as if it is a dichotomy, but it isn’t really.  That’s because many people believe that current-day systemic racism against Blacks is a direct outgrowth of slavery.  The same could be argued about apartheid.  The government program separating out Blacks and discriminating against them is over, but the socio-economic disparities in South Africa still run very deep.  Guy asserts that this distinction is important because he thinks it is easier to “sell” compensation for contemporary wrongs, than for past wrongs.  Progressive income tax, for instance, is a well-established (if recently crippled) version of redistribution of wealth from the rich (supposedly) to the poor. All the poverty assistance programs, and affirmative action programs are designed to remedy current-wrongs more than past ones and while these programs have been controversial (and cut back substantially during most Republican administrations), they are still not nearly as controversial than are reparations for slavery or for stealing Native American’s land.  

Slide 10.  The other dimension that intersects this one is whether one is looking at wrongs perpetrated by the current day “winners” or current-day “losers, or whether then conflict is ongoing, and there isn’t yet a designated winner or loser.

Slide 11.   Wrongs perpetrated by the winners are usually versions of oppression.  Addressing these wrongs is made difficult by the fact that the winners, the perpetrators, often do see their behavior as wrong at all.  They may see it as fair, as they “won” a power contest to attain their victorious position, or they may see it as fair because they think they worked harder, or were in some other way superior to the losers who they believe deserve their fate.  Though such attitudes make reconciliation more difficult, it can be done.  In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement convinced a lot of white people that Black oppression was, indeed, immoral, and that change of attitudes paved the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Certainly, that wasn’t all that was needed to accomplish justice or reconciliation—but it was a good start.

Slide 12.  Then you have other wrongs that tend to be perpetrated by the losers or the less powerful.  Violence, for example, that is perpetrated by the disempowered, who feel they have no other way to get their voices heard.  Should these be dealt with in the same was as wrongs perpetrated by the winners?  I won’t answer that question for you…I’ll let you think about it.

Slide 13.  Still, Guy noted, history tends to be written by the victors. And they tend to assume that the losers are responsible for their fate. 

Slide 14.  That’s why there is such an uproar over historical narratives and that tends to drive what we do with respect to these past wrongs.  The New York Times started the 1619 project that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavers and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.  In response, Trump started his own “1776 Commission” to “take an historic and scholarly step to restore understanding of the greatness of the American founding.”

The battle between these two narratives is likely to be intense, and has been played out locally as protestors pull down statues to founding fathers, Southern civil war leaders, and others seen by the current Progressive narrative to be monuments to past wrongs.  Similar conflicts are being played out in countless school board meetings as history and civics textbooks are chosen.  How we paint and teach our history will have a great deal of impact on how and if these conflicts are reconciled.

Slide 15.  Another important dimension is whether the reconciliation process is being pursued after the conclusive defeat of one side, or when the situation is more ambiguous.  The picture on the left is a picture of the official document signed when the Japanese surrendered after World War II.  I used this because I couldn’t find an equivalent for the German surrender.  But in both cases, the end of the conflict was agreed upon by both sides, and in the case of WWII, the U.S. and allies went out of their way to help the defeated powers recover from the war, with the Marshall Plan in Europe and an equivalent reconstruction plan in Japan. 

This was far different from the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI, which is widely seen as so punitive as to have led to the rise of Hitler, Naziism, and World War II.  It seems to me there is a lesson there in terms of the utility of punitive reparations that we ought to think about as we consider reparations for slavery.  Yes, Blacks were wronged by whites, just as the Allies were wronged by the Center Powers in World War I (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, the Ottoman Empire) But the harsh reparations forced on Germany led directly to World War II.  Having learned that lesson, George Marshall convinced the victorious allies to help, rather than hurt, the Axis powers after World War II, which led to a strong alliance between U.S. and Japan, and the EU, instead of World War III.

Slide 16.  Dealing with grievous wrongs when the conflict continues, or when, as in the United States the wrong doers are still in power is more complicated. Guy has suggested that it would make sense to have some sort of truth and reconciliation commission in which the stories of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan could come out in much the same way they came out in South Africa.  If we did that, it would be good if the United States could assume responsibility for the terrible things that it did in those two countries, and others could likewise assume responsibility. Given that a peace treaty has been signed with the Taliban, that doesn’t seem entirely far fetched.  In Iraq, now controlled by the Shia with close ties to Iran, and ISIS, that seems like much more of a long shot.

It is, of course, being considered in the U.S., both in cities, and nationally with the  US Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Movement which aims to work with the Biden Administration to establish a U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation within their first 100 days in office.

Slide 17.   Aside from Truth Commissions, other countries have used forgiveness and reintegration rituals to reintegrate former combatants or perpetrators, including child soldiers, back into their communities. Another moving documentary, Fambul Tok, available on Amazon (unfortunately, no longer streaming), tells about the traditional Fambul Tok process used to reconcile perpetrators and victims in Sierra Leone’s civil war.

Slide 18.  This video is getting long too, so I’ll stop here by noting that none of this is easy, and it certainly isn’t quick.  But Boulding’s First Law (“If it exists, it must be possible.”) applies.  Retrospective reconciliation has been done successfully before—even in extremely challenging circumstances such as South Africa, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.  So it can be done successfully again.  We just need to plan the strategy carefully, learn from the past and other countries’ experiences, work with all the stakeholders (perpetrators and victims, government and civil society) to develop a process that people will trust, will participate in, and will see as legitimate.  If you have that, and you have the resources and commitment to really carry it out, in can have a powerful effect on reconciliation, peace, and conflict transformation.


Slide 4: Adam Howard  “Documentary About Black Man's Attempt to Befriend Ku Klux Klan” NBC News.  March 8, 2016, 7:33 PM MST / Updated March 8, 2016, 7:33 PM MST.

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Slide 6 and 7: Chris McMorran “Joint Projects” Beyond Intractability. 2003.

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Slide 14: New York TImes 1619 Project. and Donald Trumop's 1776 Commission.

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Photo Credits:

Slie 2: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 3: Author: ArtsyBee /

Slide 4: Adam Howard  “Documentary About Black Man's Attempt to Befriend Ku Klux Klan” NBC News.  March 8, 2016, 7:33 PM MST / Updated March 8, 2016, 7:33 PM MST.

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Slide 6: Burundi soccer player: Jabelnshimirimana, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 7: EU Map: Kolja21, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons and EU Flag. open source.

Slide 13: Textbook: Open source and Shelves of books:  Public domain.

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