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Commentary: Who You Callin’ Metropolitan?

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This is what a major metropolitan area looks like from the author’s office in Bracken County, Kentucky. Bracken has an entirely rural population of about 8,500 but is part of the Cincinnati metropolitan area, which has more than 2 million residents. Photo: Amanda Kool/Daily Yonder

Every single resident of Bracken County, Kentucky, is “rural,” according to the Census Bureau. So why does this county of 8,500 people generally get lumped in with the nation’s largest metropolitan areas when we study economic trends? A “rural” resident of the “major metropolitan area” argues for more nuance in how we talk about rural.

For the many years I spent living and working in Boston, Massachusetts and its surrounding cities, my morning commute involved brisk walks down sidewalks, crowded subway platforms and screeching trains, escalators, more sidewalks, and elevators that lead to offices in tall buildings.

Two summers ago, I jumped ship from a life I loved in New England to raise my family and open new doors of professional opportunity here in Kentucky.

These days, my route to work involves a seconds-long walk across my driveway to a 10-by-12 shed. From the screen door that leads to the shed’s little porch, my office view includes hayfields, pastures, and several stands of trees. In the foreground, just across the fence line, stands a grumpy bull who likes a particular shady spot on the on the dam of an insubstantial cow pond. In the distance, atop the farthest ridge, I can make out a smattering of other farmhouses and barns.

The author outside her office in Northeastern Kentucky. Photo: Christopher Adams/Daily Yonder

Bracken County, Kentucky is a long way from Boston in more ways than one. And yet according to one of the most frequently-used systems for defining what is rural and what is urban, both places are counted in the very same column of data, along with our nation’s other most urban locales.

By the prevailing metrics, it’s as if I never moved at all.

By any of the informal standards catalogued by Bryce Oates in his recent essay, Measuring Rurality. And Using Data to Inform Better Rural Policy, however, my little spot in Kentucky would safely count as rural. Parking is a non-issue. You can pee outside wherever you’d like (though it might be best to face away from the nearest road, out of courtesy). And if it’s as simple as “you know a place is rural when you see it,” then anyone who looks around this beautiful part of the country can agree that Bracken County is it.

On the days each week when I have meetings, I have no choice but to drive, since we now live 45 minutes, an hour and 45 minutes, and two hours by vehicle from the three city centers of Cincinnati, Lexington, and Louisville, respectively. This next statement feels obvious, but I’ll make it clear anyway: we have no sidewalks, and we have no public transit. I can breathe more deeply among the hills of Kentucky than anywhere else I’ve ever been, and so I don’t mind the long miles of poor cellphone reception along winding, narrow backroads sometimes congested with errant turkeys and sun-bathing dogs. I occasionally show up later than I’d like due to getting stuck behind Amish horses and buggies, or depending on the season, wagons loaded down with hay or tobacco headed for the warehouse. I’ll keep all those inconveniences and throw in a lifetime without pizza delivery for the joy of living right where I am.

But what about the people who aren’t here, and are instead looking at us through a chart of numbers?

From a raw data standpoint, I think the numbers do a decent job of capturing many of the differences between my old life and the life I live now:

In Suffolk County, Massachusetts, there are 784,230 people living in 120 square miles, for a population density of 6,535 people per square mile.

In Bracken County, Kentucky, there are 8,488 people living in 209 square miles, for a population density of 40 people per square mile.

The numbers that set our federal policy come from more complicated data sets, however, like the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes, developed by the Economic Research Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture. If defining rurality is, as Oates declares, “part science and part art,” then what use is a scientific formula that categorizes Bracken County, Kentucky as a 1 out of 9, ranking us among the very largest metropolitan areas in the United States?

I wish I’d had Oates’s article as a primer last year, when I stumbled backward into the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes and myriad other definitions of rurality while compiling data for an article on rural access to justice that I co-authored for the Harvard Law & Policy Review. It was during the exercise of running my current and former addresses through the various data sets out of pure curiosity that I first learned that my home in Kentucky is not, at least not by some definitions, “rural” after all.

There are many definitions of rurality used by government bodies, researchers, and other policymakers across the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) alone recognizes nine definitions of rurality: three of them are based on census places, three others on census urban areas, one on designations of Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), one on USDA ERS Rural-Urban Commuting Area Codes, and yet another based on the USDA Business and Industry Loan Program definition.

Confused? Me too. But these definitions have real-world consequences that go beyond my irritation when someone on the other end of a conference call map-splains my town as “part of the Cincinnati MSA, so essentially a suburb of Cincinnati,” and I do my best to not counter with, “You have clearly never been to this neck of the woods.”

Lenoxburg Store, Bracken County, Kentucky. Photo: Amanda Kool/Daily Yonder

According to several of these nine definitions, the rurality of a given area depends on where that area falls on a numerical continuum that spans from most “metro” to most “nonmetro” – terms that are, often and dangerously, used interchangeably with “urban” and “rural.” When I checked my address against these data sets, I discovered that my area was generally classified as metro due to falling within the Cincinnati MSA that was mentioned on that phone call. I searched for my county’s placement among the Rural-Urban Continuum Codes, which are used to assign every county in the United States to one of nine numerical designations of metro or nonmetro (and thereby conflate the terms urban and rural with metro and nonmetro, right there in the same classification system). You can imagine my surprise when I found my new Kentucky home pegged all the way at the end of that scale as a “1,” meaning Bracken County, Kentucky was lumped in in with the most urban/metropolitan places in the United States.

New York, New York. Los Angeles, California. Boston, Massachusetts. Johnsville, Kentucky.

To further complicate matters, the U.S. Census Bureau takes a position that is much different than the USDA’s when it comes to defining rurality. Through an interactive map on their website that’s replete with facts about rural America, in a section subtitled “Dispelling the Nonmetro Myth,” the Census Bureau boldly declares that the terms “nonmetro” and “rural” are not synonymous, regardless of how the USDA ERS uses them – and regardless of how often those terms are used interchangeably by people who make important decisions, such as federal employees who conduct analyses of conditions in “rural” America and establish eligibility criteria for critical pockets of federal funding reserved for rural people and places.

The Census Bureau goes on to proclaim that over half of people living in rural areas live within a metro area. In other words, in the eyes of the Census Bureau, the vast body of data we have about rural people, as collected and analyzed under USDA ERS definitions, excludes roughly as many rural people as it includes.

And sure enough, in contrast to our 1 on the USDA ERS’s Rural-Urban Continuum Codes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Data, 100% of Bracken County’s population is designated as rural.

That’s a dramatic shift in perception that depends solely on which data point used to define us.

The problem here is much bigger than a cultural crisis of identity. Conflating notions of urban and rural with notions of metro and non-metro and mixing usage of USDA ERS definitions with Census Bureau definitions creates a muddy mess of what we think we know about broadband access, healthcare, employment, education, poverty, and so much else, both here and there. It means that the lines we use to separate the haves and the haves-not on any given topic appear less stark than human experience suggests, since under-counting the issues only serves to soften the statistics on either side of the line. From a programmatic perspective, it means that streams of funding for services intended to level the playing field do not reach some communities that might most need it, or that might best utilize it.

Not surprisingly, I agree with Oates that rural statistics are undercounted. I also acknowledge that being over-inclusive when defining rurality comes with its own share of problems. I am far from a statistician, and I so I won’t proclaim to know how we resolve these blinding incongruities, how we concisely capture the nuances of these places that we see as rural and urban with our own eyes but that sometimes appear as something else entirely through the guise of someone’s calculator. Anecdotes and personal narratives don’t fit neatly within any graph.

Yet through first-hand experience of the inadequacies of our prevailing metrics and following Oates’ lead, I can’t come up with a better place to start. And in the meantime of a better solution, perhaps continually bringing the art of rural into public discourse might encourage the science of rural to catch up.

So let me tell you about our general store about 15 minutes up the road, and how it beats the convenience of any box store – which is good, since we don’t have one of those in our county – because you can buy shampoo and live bait, get your deer processed, order a deli sandwich, hear some live music on Saturday nights, and catch up on the local gossip all in one stop. My husband didn’t have to wait in a line nor argue with a self-checkout machine when he sprinted through the doors one crisp November afternoon to buy me a giant bottle of water as I waited in the car in the throes of labor, practicing my breathing techniques as we began our 90-minute dash to the hospital.

I’d also like to record the time our county clerk tracked my uncle down on Facebook because she couldn’t find my phone number but wanted to make sure to let me know that she’d successfully transferred my car title to Kentucky.

I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen how grateful I am for the ambulance and paramedics who showed up to our house in record time during an emergency last February, and how too few of our county’s first responders get paid anything at all for the life-saving work they do.

I’d also like to give thanks to the Bracken County News and the weekly newspapers from our surrounding counties, since without them, I’m not sure when or where our news would ever be reported.

I should also report that my internet works less than half as well here as it did in Boston and that it costs twice as much. And that in contrast to some of my neighbors, I’m lucky to have an option to buy internet at all. When Susan Crawford paints a near-term horizon upon which “widely and competitively available” fiber connectivity can bring our entire country “new businesses, new transport capabilities, new ways of managing our use of energy, new forms of education and health care, new ways of earning a living, and new forms of human connectedness,” and warns that without it, our nation will be “missing out on the future being lived and built elsewhere,” let my TestIT app results of 6.68mbps download speeds and 1.08mbps upload speeds expose how far behind we are all lagging in that race.

I want to enter into the record that when my family goes “to town,” we typically cross the Bracken-Mason County line into Maysville, which has a city population that tops the population of our whole county. And yet Mason County is designated as a 6 on the same Rural-Urban Continuum Codes that say we are a 1. In 1993, Bracken County was defined as an 8 out of 9 on that same continuum and yet over the course of a single decade, presumably due to the construction of the AA Highway which better connects us up toward Cincinnati, we had reached the pinnacle of urbanity at a 1. In light of this dramatic change in classification, I want to challenge the embedded assumption that a highway’s ability to more efficiently deliver our workforce to employers in a larger city (and in a different state, no less) correlates to dramatic shifts in the needs experienced by – and services available to – the people who live here.

Finally, I’d like to recognize the strength in numbers we have in our country’s vast lands of metropolitan rurality and call out just a few of the notable residents included among our ranks. Wendell Berry, Kentucky author, farmer, and living embodiment of rural, farms his homestead in Henry County and also finds himself kicked all the way into the “1” column of the rural-urban continuum, thanks to Henry County’s relative proximity to Louisville. Sarah Smarsh wrote a gorgeous book about class, culture, and opportunity through tales of her childhood spent as a farm kid on the windswept Kansas prairie; as it turns out, Smash’s family farm falls in metropolitan territory, as well. Even the Grand Canyon finds itself sitting on the metropolitan side of the fence. Check the data for yourself – you might be in the club, too.

Regardless of where you fall on any given chart of numbers, let’s acknowledge the shortcomings of those charts and the very real consequences of getting it wrong. And let’s work together toward a better means to capture our nation’s nuanced rural landscape – one that more closely resembles what we see with our own eyes.

Amanda L. Kool is a lawyer, consultant, and author who lives in Bracken County, Kentucky. Her recent publications include the Legal Needs Assessment for Kentucky Entrepreneurs, published in collaboration with the Kentucky Bar Association, and “Legal Deserts: a Multi-State Perspective on Rural Access to Justice.”

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Listen: Going Home for My Small Town’s First LGBTQ Pride

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This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists, and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original article here.

When friends in Brooklyn ask where I’m from, I say “nearby Asheville.” They usually react with delight. They’ve heard Asheville is so cool. Recently at a backyard party in Williamsburg, a woman sporting a see-through tote bag told me she’s been considering buying a house down there to start a queer commune. I nodded sullenly. Living “nearby Asheville” is a loaded phrase. If you drive even just one mile outside of downtown Asheville, the free-spirited queer-friendly environment starts to fade. My hometown of Hendersonville is only about 25 miles from Asheville proper, but it can feel a world away. 

A few weeks ago, I flew from New York City to Charlotte, where my partner met me at the airport. I don’t get the chance to come home often. With every year I spend away, visiting feels more and more precious. This visit was especially charged because I was coming home to attend Hendersonville’s first ever LGBTQ pride event.

Driving west on I-85, there’s this electrifying moment where the Blue Ridge Mountains appear in the distance. It’s the physical marker that I’m on the way home. Around this point in the drive, I usually start craving Cook Out. My partner and I split a strawberry milkshake and drive the rest of the way with the windows down, blaring Maren Morris. By the time we ascend the winding road to my parents’ house, fireflies light the roadside.

Hendersonville is a small city of 14,000 with a remarkable concentration of retirees and a church at nearly every four-way-stop. It’s the kind of place where people honk the car horn mostly as a way to say hello to a neighbor. It’s also the kind of place where a teenage girl might hide in a bathroom stall during a school pep rally because someone yelled “dyke” at her and she turned as red as the plush auditorium seats. The bathroom stall at my high school is the only place where I did any kind of praying. Usually, I was praying to get as far away from Hendersonville as possible. 

Growing up, I didn’t know anyone in the town who was openly queer. I wasn’t out either. Not even to myself. As a teenager, I couldn’t picture living in Hendersonville as an adult. Now, I realize that inability to imagine my adulthood was related to the lack of LGBTQ visibility. There was a pervasive silence around who was queer. With everyone hiding in their own way, we never had a chance to connect.

Hendersonville’s first pride celebration wasn’t a parade or a festival. It was a potluck picnic.  Bringing the community together over potato salad and watermelon slices is quaintly befitting for Hendersonville’s first pride. It’s also the kind of event where people can actually talk—unlike the relative anonymity of a parade or march. I felt that I was coming home to meet the LGBTQ people who were all around me as I was growing up. We would really see each other for the first time. 

A participant in Hendersonville’s pride picnic tapes a sign to a parked vehicle, calling for City Council to support the event. Photo: Monique LaBorde, Scalawag

The week before the pride picnic, Mayor Barbara Volk made a proclamation declaring June 15 pride Day in Hendersonville. Dozens of protesters showed up to City Hall for the proclamation. Every member of the City Council publicly opposed the Mayor’s decision. One City Council member said it didn’t reflect the standards of the community. Another Council member who initially opposed the event asked, “What happens when White Supremacy Day comes up?”

I started to worry that Hendersonville wasn’t ready for pride. I met organizer Laura Bannister on the day before the event. She was grilling a hundred hamburgers on her back porch for the picnic. Laura said she had no idea how many people to expect. She also told me that someone in the community had posted a video on Facebook, showing a group gathered in the park where the picnic was set to take place. They were saying prayers to dispel the devil. The woman who posted it said she heard someone say they wished death on the LGBT community. Laura sent a friend to check the trash cans for bombs both the night and morning before the picnic. Hearing this, my worry turned to fear.

I’ve been to pride events all over the South—Florence, Alabama; Salisbury, North Carolina; Huntington, West Virginia; Valdosta, Georgia—there are always protesters. Driving up to Patton Park on the day of the picnic, I expected to see those tall yellow signs warning of eternal damnation. But I didn’t. Instead, I saw families unloading lawn chairs from their minivans, carrying Tupperware containers and gallons of sweet tea to the park shelter. The event kicked off with a blessing from a local Metropolitan Community Church pastor, Rev. Dr. Joan Saniuk. I thought the protesters must be running late.

As the festivities entered their second hour, I noticed another way this pride was unlike every other I’d attended. There were no sponsors, corporate or local. There weren’t any vendors either, except local advocacy organizations. Someone set up free face painting, a DJ played gay anthems and picnic tables overflowed with homemade food. Almost 500 people came to the event, fixing plates and sitting in the grass to talk. By the time people started going back for seconds, it was clear that the protesters weren’t coming. That relieved type of joy was palpable in the crowd. It also became clear to us that our town might not be ready for a pride parade or a march, but it was certainly ready for a pride picnic.

Organizer Laura Bannister grilling burgers on her back porch in preparation for the event. Photo: Monique LaBorde, Scalawag
Jerry and Bea Miller wearing matching t-shirts that say “gay? fine by me.” Jerry has been president of Hendersonville’s PFLAG chapter since 2002. Photo: Monique LaBorde, Scalawag
Hector Trejo decorated a cake with pride flags and song lyrics. It reads “Happy first pride Hendersonville.” Photo: Monique LaBorde, Scalawag
Bea Miller fixing a plate of strawberry cobbler. Photo: Monique LaBorde, Scalawag
The scene at Hendersonville’s pride picnic in Patton Park.  Photo: Monique LaBorde, Scalawag

Monique LaBorde is a freelance audio producer based in Brooklyn, New York. She’s a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, the Duke Center for Documentary Studies, and the Transom Story Workshop. Her work has aired on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, North Carolina Public Radio, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and WCAI.

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Commentary: Rural Power Co-Ops ‘Stranded in Coal’

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Sheldon Power Station near Hallam, Nebraska. Photo: Rhea Landholm, Center for Rural Affairs

Electric co-ops’ old investments in coal-fired production prevent them from taking the next step into economical and efficient renewable energy. A new report offers a way forward.

Rural electric cooperatives’ loyalty to coal is holding rural America back.

That’s according to a new report authored by CURE (Clean Up the River Environment), We Own It and the Center for Rural Affairs.

During the 1970s, most rural electric cooperatives made significant investments to build coal-burning power plants. At the time, the coal investment strategy made in the interest of providing low-cost electricity to their member-owners. Co-ops took on massive amounts of debt, mostly from the federal government. One year a loan to Basin Electric (a consortium of cooperatives that serves much of the Northern Great Plains) for a coal plant took up almost the entire annual budget for loans from the USDA’s Rural Utility Service.

In 2019, the world of energy production and distribution is very different.

Coal is now increasingly expensive as well as being a leading contributor to climate change. With this rise in the cost of coal and the simultaneous drop in the price of renewables, coal is an increasingly bad choice for utilities. Today, most coal plants are considered to be uneconomic (perhaps “underperforming”) assets by utilities, and many rural electric co-ops are identifying coal plants as stranded assets.

For example, a 2018 report from Rocky Mountain Institute shows Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, (a partnership of 43 electric cooperatives and public power districts in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming) could save at least $600 million by 2030 and reduce their risk by using their coal plants less and investing in more renewable energy.

Beyond the powerful report conclusions, major utilities are making big commitments to renewable energy. Xcel Energy, an investor-owned and profit-driven utility, recently committed to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. In 2018, Great River Energy, a generation and transmission cooperative serving 28 electric distribution cooperatives in Minnesota, committed to 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. In a fact sheet, Great River Energy stated, “Renewable energy, particularly wind, is Great River Energy’s lowest-cost option for new generation resources… Great River Energy’s average wholesale rates will remain flat in 2019 with projected increases below the rate of inflation for the next decade.”

(Photo by Kimon Berlin, Flickr, Creative Commons)

In 2016, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative bought themselves out of their Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association contract to transition to 100 percent daytime solar generation, which is projected to save the co-op at least $30 million over 10 years. Other Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association member cooperatives are looking into buying themselves out or increasing the association’s 5 percent cap on local renewable energy generation. Cooperatives across the country are locked into similar long-term, 40-plus year contracts with their generation and transmission cooperatives, some allowing only a couple dozen kilowatts or zero local renewable energy generation. These long-term contracts are often driven by outstanding debt for coal plants.

Rural electric co-ops are caught between the push for clean energy and their stranded assets, leading many co-ops to double down on their bad investments and push a pro-coal agenda that approaches a dogmatic rejection of the potential prosperity of clean energy for rural communities. As co-ops reject the new reality of more affordable electricity generation and a more distributed, safe and modern utility system, rural America is being left behind by clean energy prosperity while also having more expensive electricity and an unstable utility structure.

The report details five suggestions for policy solutions to address the problem and makes a preliminary examination of each of them. The policies range from regulatory action to swapping a determined dollar amount per new megawatts of clean energy, to familiar financial strategies. While each of these potential solutions addressed could potentially move the needle on electric cooperative debt and transitioning to clean energy, there are definite advantages and disadvantages to each policy.

The options of securitization, USDA Rural Utility Service refinancing, and debt absolution all have the same flaw: they do not guarantee that retired coal plants will be replaced by new energy efficiency and renewable energy investments. These mechanisms rely on market-based logic to ensure clean energy replaces coal. Or they assume that because utility-scale wind and solar are consistently the lowest cost option, rural electric cooperatives will choose to make investments in that direction. Unencumbered with the barrier of coal debt and stranded assets, cooperative leaders may fall victim to their own dogma about fossil fuel infrastructure rather than take the more affordable wind and solar route. Despite the current economics of wind and solar versus coal and natural gas, this is already proving true.

Since 2014, electric cooperatives have reduced their reliance on coal from 54 percent to 41 percent; however, they have also increased their natural gas generation portfolio from 18 percent to 26 percent. Overall, that’s a shift from 72 percent to 67 percent fossil fuel generation. Meanwhile, nationally, cooperatives have only increased their wind and solar generation from 4 percent to 8 percent.

In order to be effective in closing co-op coal plants, avoiding a natural gas buildout, as well as delivering clean energy and prosperity for rural America, any potential solution will need to be designed with excruciating detail.

We need strong, forward-looking rural electric co-ops that are ready to serve our rural communities for the next 100 years. We need our co-ops to deliver on their founding promise of member control and democratizing the rural economy. Relieving the burden of electric co-op coal debt is one way to make that happen.

Erik Hatlestad is director of the Energy Democracy Program at CURE (Clean Up the River Environment) and Liz Veazey is network director of We Own It. Hatlestad and Veazey will host a webinar about their report on Monday, June 24, at noon Central. Register here.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Maryland Has Created a Truth Commission on Lynchings – Can it Deliver?

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State delegates work in the Maryland House of Delegates chamber in Annapolis, Md., Monday, April 8, 2019, the final day of the state's 2019 legislative session. Photo: Steve Ruark/AP Photo

Between 1850 and 1950, thousands of African American men, women and children were victims of lynchings: public torture and killings carried out by white mobs.

Lynchings were used to terrorize and control black people, notably in the South following the end of slavery.

Yet despite the prevalence and seriousness of the practice, there has been an “astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching,” reports the Equal Justice Initiative, the leading organization conducting research on lynchings.

Until now.

In April 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice – the first lynching memorial in the U.S. – was opened in Montgomery, Alabama. In December of the same year, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill that defined lynching as a federal crime.

More recently, in April 2019, the state of Maryland established a truth commission to investigate the lynchings of at least 40 African Americans between 1854 and 1933.

The legislation that authorized the truth commission, Maryland HB 307, was sponsored by Maryland House Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk.

Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee in February 2019, Peña-Melnyk said that the commission would be an opportunity “to send the message that the lives of the 40-something people really mattered.” Written with the help of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project and endorsed by the Equal Justice Initiative, the bill passed with strong bipartisan support just two months later.

The commission has the potential to educate the public about dozens of lynchings – some of which occurred with the knowledge or direct involvement of local, county and state government entities. The commission can also provide the opportunity for reconciliation between the families of those who were responsible and the families of those who were killed.

Can it live up to its promise?

Death certificate for George Armwood, 22- or 23-year-old lynched in Maryland by a mob. Photo: Maryland State Archives/Flickr

Truth commissions around the world

I study human rights, with a particular interest in institutions that hold individuals, organizations and governments accountable for human rights abuses. My current research focuses on truth commissions and how they can be designed to be effective.

A truth commission is a temporary body that investigates different forms and systems of violence that happened in the past. Examples include the commissions that investigated apartheid in South Africa, the civil war in Timor-Leste and the dictatorship in Chile.

Generally, governments establish commissions to examine documents and collect witness testimony. A key goal of commissions is preparing a report that details the facts and traces the legacies of violence and abuse. A second, related goal is reconciliation. In Maryland’s case, this would mean working toward respect, understanding and trust of those of other races and their experiences.

Based on my research and analyses of truth commissions in Chile, South Africa and Timor-Leste, I believe that the commission in Maryland has the potential to succeed.

But it faces some big obstacles.

Truth commissions in the US

The commission in Maryland will not be the first in the U.S.

In the 1980s, a national commission studied the government’s relocation and internment in camps of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. The commission’s work led to both apologies and reparations for victims.

In addition, there have been commissions at the local level – for example, the 2004 commission in North Carolina that examined the killing of five anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators in Greensboro in 1979. There have also been commissions at the state level – for example the 2013 commission in Maine that investigated the separation of indigenous Wabanaki children from their communities since 1960.

However, the commission in Maryland will be the first to research lynchings, which investigative journalist Ida B. Wells in 1909 called the U.S.‘s “national crime.”

Lynchings happened across the U.S., including the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. Photo: Shutterstock

The truth commission in Maryland

The Maryland law establishing the commission calls for “full knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of the truth.”

How would a commission accomplish this?

I have found in my research that a commission needs support from politicians, access to information, and community knowledge and involvement. It appears that the commission in Maryland has – or will have – each of these characteristics. In this regard, it is similar to previous successful commissions.

First, similar to South Africa, the commission has support from politicians on both sides of the aisle – in this case, Democrats and Republicans. Bipartisan support affords the commission public legitimacy as it seeks access to court records, historical archives, and local and statewide newspapers. So, it may be harder to politicize the commission’s work.

Second, as in Timor-Leste, where the commission held hearings in the villages where violence occurred, the commission in Maryland will hold hearings across the state, including in communities where lynchings occurred.

By operating throughout the state, the commission can more easily reach victims’ descendants and collect their stories. Collecting information from as many sources as possible is important to ascertaining the truth.

In addition, the commission will be well positioned to broadly share its work and findings, through the hearings themselves, local news reporting and more. This is key to both truth and reconciliation.

Third, as in Chile, the commission in Maryland will receive recommendations from the public, including from victims’ families, about erecting memorials and historical markers where lynchings occurred.

Getting families and the wider community involved in this aspect can help provide healing and closure. For more than a century, the pain and trauma they experienced went unacknowledged.

Now, not only does Maryland have the potential to address this pain and trauma, it has the opportunity to memorialize the lynchings so others, too, can know what happened.

Obstacles to truth and reconciliation

There are, I believe, obstacles that may prevent the commission from accomplishing all of its goals.

To start, the commission’s limited focus may lead to limited reconciliation. Lynchings represent just one form – the most extreme form – of race-based discrimination and violence.

Other forms – which persist today – include the over-policing, over-criminalization, and mass incarceration of African Americans. The commission hasn’t been designed to address these issues or the broader context of racism and violence. So, it’s unclear how the commission will lead to widespread reconciliation.

In addition, while the families of those responsible for lynchings can work with the commission and take the opportunity to make amends to the victims’ families and communities, they may decline to do so. And victims’ families may not be prepared to forgive.

Finally, the commission has been created in a fraught social and political environment. Hate crimes have increased in recent years throughout the U.S. Some elected officials have trivialized racial violence – including lynchings. And some race-focused policies, such as reparations, are widely unpopular among Americans.

So, while the commission benefits from broad support from government leaders in Maryland, it may not enjoy similar support from the public.

Whether the obstacles I describe will overcome the strengths of the commission remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the commission represents an important first step, and offers a guide for similar efforts in other states.

Kelebogile Zvobgo is the Provost’s Fellow in the Social Sciences and a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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