The Color of Justice: Transitional Justice and the Legacy of Slavery and Racism in the United States

4/26/2021

Virginie Ladisch and Anna Myriam Roccatello

This briefing paper examines how transitional justice approaches can guide the discussion around dismantling systemic racism in the United States to focus on root causes of violence and racial injustice. Drawing from relevant experiences internationally and within the United States, it provides ideas for what steps can be taken to advance acknowledgment, redress harms linked to the legacy of slavery, reform institutions, and prevent future recurrences.

This briefing paper makes the case for applying transitional justice approaches to dismantle systemic racism in the United States. The need to connect the dots between past and present abuses and affirm the humanity and dignity of Black people are central to all efforts to acknowledge victims and the violations they suffered, challenge the dominant historical narrative, repair harms, and reform broken systems. While the truth of the United States’ legacy of slavery and racism and its connections to present-day injustices are well documented in scholarly materials, they have not been acknowledged by the government or adequately integrated into the country’s collective narrative. Overcoming the dehumanization associated with persistent racial and socioeconomic subjugation requires a conscious and explicit government effort to denounce it and inform all citizens about how it occurred throughout US history. This includes acknowledgment and reparations. Reforms are also desperately needed in the criminal justice system, voting, housing, education, and health care. Drawing on comparative examples, this briefing argues that any meaningful changes to laws and policies or institutional reforms must be grounded in a recognition and understanding of the society’s past atrocities and its connection to present-day injustices, grievances, and violence.

The United States finds itself in a moment of reckoning, as protests and public demands crack open the door to broader discussions on how to unravel the country’s legacies of slavery and white supremacy and reform institutions such the police and the criminal justice system. It should look to and learn from other countries that have undertaken efforts to address systemic human rights violations, provide reparations, and advance reforms. It is now time for the United States to apply transitional justice approaches domestically to at last reckon with its legacy of slavery and racism and build a more just future for the country and all its citizens.

Date published: 
4/26/2021