How Can We End This Enduring Legacy?

George Rudebusch (MPP ’20, Law ’20) set out to create policy guidelines for a Central Virginia truth commission. What he found surprised him.

In the wake of past injustices, truth commissions offer divided communities the chance to reach a common understanding of their history. For his Applied Policy Project (APP) at Batten, George Rudebusch (MPP ’20, Law ’20) studied eight historical truth commissions from across the nation, taking an empathetic approach and absorbing the words of people with a range of perspectives on the past, particularly people whose voices have often gone unheard. His goal was to develop policy guidelines for University and Community Action for Racial Equity (UCARE), which was looking to form a truth commission for Central Virginia.

But Rudebusch’s research led him in a direction he didn’t expect. Recently, he took a break from studying for his bar examination to talk with us about the report and his conclusions.

What is a truth commission?

The core purpose of a truth commission is to examine a historical abuse and to have the truth about it be told. In my report, I broke that process down into three parts. One is factual truth-telling, which can be done with news reports or corroborating accounts from witnesses—anything that gives objective information about what happened. But another really important part of the process is what I've called personal truth-telling, which is vindicating voices that have never been heard in the community. Even if they might not be corroborated by other evidence, there's tremendous value both for the individual and the community in hearing those voices. 

The third part is dialogical truth-telling: Ideally, the commission sparks community discussion, which provides the basis for a new, shared truth about what happened.

You analyzed eight different truth commissions from the past. Could you talk about what stood out to you during that process? 

I was shocked at how across all eight, I either had never heard of the underlying event or knew extremely little about it. This is American history of awful, awful violence, just one abuse of human rights after another, and it's shocking that you don't learn about it in school. For the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission, for example, people who were children at the time talked about hiding under their beds while white men looted their homes and assaulted their parents. The first time bombs were ever dropped in the world—not in the United States, in the world—was in Tulsa. It's hard to fathom. 

One other thing that struck me was the complicity or even affirmative involvement of the state in these events. It was striking to read about well-intentioned people following policy directives that were really harmful and seeing how that can lead to devastating consequences.

From a policy standpoint, was there anything else that surprised you?

My original impression of truth commissions was that they could help align communities with their democratic ideals. But as I took a deeper dive into the literature, I quickly found that truth commissions are not the most effective policy tool. I wanted to make sure I delivered what I promised to my client, which was a document that both assumes a truth commission is being made for this community and outlines what we can do to make sure that it’s a success. But I also wrote them a memo that criticizes the truth commission model and proposes an alternative policy path forward.

Can you say more about that? What led you to believe that these commissions might not be successful?

I don’t want to be too critical; people create these commissions because they believe in change and justice, and oftentimes they're operating in circumstances where a lot of other policy solutions have failed. But truth commissions are a product of political compromise. They arose as countries were transitioning from a dictatorship to democracy. In these situations, some people were calling for outright prosecutions, other people were calling for outright amnesty or immunity, and truth commissions came about as a middle-ground solution: The idea was to go through trial-like procedures that would hold people accountable publicly but that wouldn’t have criminal sanctions attached.

In other words, politicians created truth commissions, not academics. It was only after truth commissions were created that scholars tried to come up with a theoretical model for how they work and a theoretical justification about the benefits they yield. A lot of the claimed benefits of truth commissions are also really lofty goals that are hard to get data on, such as improving democratic institutions or the rule of law. How do you measure that? That's hard to do from a data science perspective. Practically speaking, the benefits are highly uncertain, and yet these commissions come with years of process, hundreds of thousands of dollars in expense, and the very real cost of retraumatizing people who were affected.

For those three reasons—theoretical uncertainty, empirical challenges, and the combination of uncertain benefits with certain costs—I’m not hugely supportive of the model right now. A lot of prominent former proponents of the truth commission model have gone on record saying, “Don’t do this,” and I think that’s pretty telling.

What do you propose as an alternate policy solution?

A really robust strategy for community policy and advocacy: multifaceted, comprehensive, and tailored to the community. For Charlottesville, this could include a number of different things. One could be creating a commission specifically to study the lynching of John Henry James. Another could be to collect oral histories from people who were involved in the Unite the Right rally, both the demonstrators and the counter-demonstrators. You could also do presentations at UVA orientation every year about Charlottesville and the University's history of racial injustice, so that way people who are coming here for the first time are oriented about our troubling history.

You make a compelling argument for why we should be thinking about this more carefully.

To be frank, my criticisms are very focused on policy analysis, but I also think there is a real argument to be made for creating these commissions because of their symbolic value—because they send an important message of validation to the community. If a group of Charlottesville’s leaders thinks a truth commission is worthwhile, who am I to say that we shouldn't go through with it? That's part of living in a democracy where people have different viewpoints and express them in different ways. All of the things I’m suggesting are focused on getting people talking about this history and encouraging them to acknowledge how it’s continuing to shape Charlottesville today. The question I think we’re all asking is: How can we end this enduring legacy here and now—or as soon as possible?