Why addressing the historical legacy of racial injustice is essential for a healthy democracy

6 min readApr 29, 2022


Around the world, democratic innovations help societies address the historical legacy of racial injustice.

  • The problem: Many societies have a deeply painful legacy of race-based injustice, which negatively affects its capacity to address the impact of that legacy and so undermines the present and future of that society.
  • Why it matters: Democracies cannot function, let alone thrive, if institutions avoid dealing with their legacies of injustice. In fact, they are highly likely to continue to perpetuate and grow these divisions, to their long-term detriment.
  • The solution: Many different approaches are making a difference, but Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs), provide one of the best practice examples for real accountability and change.

First published on Apolitical, this post is written by Treston Codrington, public engagement associate and Matt Leighninger, former vice president from the research and public engagement organisation Public Agenda.

Khulumani Support Group members picket outside the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg on 21 October 2021. Photo credit: Michelle Banda.

Many societies have painful legacies of racism, genocide, and other forms of injustice. From well-known cases such as apartheid in South Africa, to examples like Canada’s residential schools for indigenous peoples, these legacies have far-reaching impacts on present day political, social, and economic conditions. These legacies also affect our capacities to address them, not least because they continue to undermine trust among citizens and between citizens and their governments.

Democracies cannot function, let alone thrive, if people, institutions, and governments cannot face legacies of racial injustice. Historical injustice always manifests itself in contemporary challenges. For example, the legacy of medical racism in the United States is shown in the decisions of young, educated African-Americans to avoid the Covid-19 vaccine. Cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma are struggling to raise awareness and achieve justice on incidents like the 1921 Greenwood Massacre. There are currently two bills in the US Congress advocating for the creation of a ‘commission on truth, racial healing, and transformation’. The legacies of racial violence and other injustices continue to be felt in all aspects of society.

The emergence of TRCs

Around the world, democratic innovations such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) have emerged to help societies address the historical legacy of racial injustice and find ways to move forward. Some of these innovations and the lessons we can learn from them are being collected on Participedia.net, the largest online collection of case examples, methods, and organisations related to public participation.

Currently offering over 3,000 (and growing) crowdsourced entries, Participedia is supported by an international community of researchers and practitioners. From its inception as a partnership between the University of British Columbia and Harvard University, it continues at its new home in the Centre for Human Rights and Restorative Justice at McMaster University, where Participedia benefits from McMaster’s Confronting Atrocities Project.

Visit the Truth and Reconciliation Collection on Participedia.net

Truth, reconciliation, or both?

One of the first findings that emerges from Participedia entries related to TRCs is that some of these initiatives are much more oriented towards truth than reconciliation. “The goal of a truth commission,” writes Dr Bonny Ibhawoh, a McMaster professor, director of Participedia, and chair of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Right to Development, “is to hold public hearings to establish the scale and impact of a past injustice, typically involving wide-scale human rights abuses, and make it part of the permanent, unassailable public record. Truth commissions also officially recognise victims and perpetrators in an effort to move beyond the painful past.”

“Public officials, advocates, and citizens considering a TRC process need to understand what they are getting into and what it will take to see it through.”

Most of the examples of TRCs in Central and South America, for example, have focused on fact-finding and raising awareness. Bills in the US Congress recommending the creation of a US commission on truth, racial healing, and transformation have a similar focus. In contrast, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which addressed historic injustices perpetrated against the country’s indigenous peoples, produced 94 calls to action in its 2015 report. While most of these calls to action are still waiting to be implemented, the discovery of over a thousand unmarked graves on former residential school sites has continued to galvanise indigenous and non-indigenous citizens to demand reconciliation and accountability.

Making good on the ‘reconciliation’ and restorative justice elements of a commission requires not only a commitment by public officials and government agencies to follow through, but actions by non-profit organisations and civil society groups. For example, the Khulumani Support Group in South Africa was developed in the aftermath of the TRC to continue advocating for truth, healing and redress for those affected by apartheid, and to work towards the creation of a non-racial democratic society. Khulumani’s slogan is ‘From victims to active citizens’ and their mission is grounded in developing citizen-based accountability, advocacy, and democratic practice long after the formal South African TRC has ended.

Not to be taken lightly

None of the innovative processes are easy. Public officials, advocates, and citizens considering a TRC process need to understand what they are getting into and what it will take to see it through. Some commissions, such as the one in Ghana, were prevented from publicly releasing their final report for fear the revelations emerging from them would prove politically unpalatable to elected officials. The report of the Liberian TRC still hasn’t been released to the public. “You have to consider the politics of the day,” says Ibhawoh, and anticipate how other public officials and the public as a whole will react to the work of the commission. “You don’t want to start a TRC unless you’re serious about it and understand the commitment you are making.” Like most democratic innovations and reforms, TRCs require built-in accountability as well as the political will to reinforce that accountability.

This commitment includes not only supporting and protecting the work of TRCs, but also understanding how participating in the work of the commission will affect people. “People who give testimony on past incidents are reliving painful, potentially life-altering events,” says Ibhawoh. “You need social workers, psychiatrists, and other professionals who can support them, otherwise you may only be starting a kind of retraumatisation process for people who were already victimised once.”

An ongoing conversation

While much work has been done on understanding truth commissions as transitional justice mechanisms, relatively little attention has been given to understanding them as civic participatory processes. Participedia is bringing attention to truth commissions as mechanisms for civic engagement and democratic participation. This diversity of approaches, including initiatives that support, raise awareness of, or help to implement TRC recommendations, are an important part of the picture, argues Ibhawoh. “TRCs are more successful if they are embedded in an ongoing conversation, involving governments and many other parts of society, about past incidents of injustice and current conditions of racial equity.”

Many Participedia entries go beyond TRCs, cataloguing social movements like Black Lives Matter that have advocated for racial justice from outside ‘the system’. Others are efforts like Toronto Civics 101, which were initiated by governments or other actors inside the system to engage people of colour and clarify ways to work towards racial equity. Still, others describe engagement efforts that bring together system actors and citizens in ways that lead to new social programs and policy changes — including the passage of a bill to preserve tribal languages in New Mexico.

“Wherever there is an ugly, unresolved injustice pulling at the fabric of a society, there is an opportunity to haul it out in public and deal with it,” writes Ibhawoh. For people inside and outside of government who share this conviction, Participedia provides a range of models and lessons for moving forward.

This essay was created as part of a partnership with Participedia & Public Agenda. Participedia is a global network and crowdsourcing platform for researchers, educators, practitioners, policymakers, activists, and anyone interested in public participation and democratic innovations. Public Agenda is a nonpartisan research and public engagement organisation dedicated to strengthening democracy and expanding opportunity for all Americans.




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