Using Restorative Justice to repair the cultural harms of the past: Black History Month edition

Published: Friday, October 22nd, 2021

This is a blog by Restorative Justice Development Officer Sula Blankenberg.


Betty Campbell StatueThis Black History Month has been a time of reflection for me. Reflection on the histories of African and Caribbean peoples in the UK and of the wider African diaspora. Reflection on Black people’s foundational contributions to the Britain we see today, because Black History is British History. Reflecting on the progress (slowly but surely) we have made in recognizing the institutional flaws of systems like the educational and criminal justice system is important. Black History is rich and filled with so much joy, pain, and everything in between…we deserve this reflection. And we deserve more: a deeper reflection on what still needs to be done to ensure Black people have equal access and opportunities within these systems and beyond. Black History needs to be told, taught, and protected. Understanding these histories and the disproportionalities of the Black experience is how we can start to heal the traumas of the past, creating a more just and equal future for all. 


Around the world, Black people are often overrepresented in the Criminal Justice System (as both victims and offenders) but are also less likely to access victim services such as Restorative Justice. In the UK, Restorative Justice is associated with the criminal justice system, a system that continues to marginalize people of colour – “The Lammy review highlighted that our criminal justice system does not command the trust of our Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) citizens”. This can lead to people of colour being suspicious of the services offering Restorative Justice, even if it could be beneficial to them. Furthermore, a lack of cultural awareness allows people within the Criminal Justice System to continuously perpetuate racism from within. Racism, often hidden behind policy, allows campaigns like the #KnifeFree chicken box campaign in 2019 to actually be implemented. Through a long history of systemic and institutionalized racism, these barriers expand far beyond that of access. The system is not broken, it was just designed without us in mind


But despite how many Black people don’t know about Restorative Justice, or don’t feel that it is for them, we in the field must persevere. We need to put more work into showing that Restorative Justice is a safe space for them to heal and repair harm, understanding and putting their needs at the forefront. Restorative Justice is a needs-based approach, meaning the needs of people, all people, are at its core. It is a concept that in the UK started to gain credibility in the 1990s, but throughout the world, reflects Indigenous and community-based systems of conflict resolution. Restorative Justice has the power to repair harm, not just for the individuals involved, but to repair the cultural and historical harms of the past, for a collective group of people or collective identity. Understanding Black History and its legacies, positive and negative, in the present, is how we start to heal the traumas of the past and move towards a better future.


Some museums are turning to community involvement, a key component of Restorative Justice, to address issues of repatriation and decolonization. Museums, cultural organizations, and local heritage groups, such as The International Sites of Conscience and the fledgling Center for Restorative History at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, are practicing “Restorative Justice” when they work with communities to center Black stories, represent Black identities and create space for Black people. It’s encouraging to see how applicable Restorative Justice is in a myriad of contexts that aim to address the harms of the past and present, and how intertwined these contexts are. It excites me to think of how we can link our work with theirs, connecting with different cultural sectors to widen the scope of Restorative Justice to create a present and a future in which Black people can not only survive but thrive. Restorative Justice can provide the right tools to do just that. We know the problem, let’s work towards finding and acting on the solution, every day, not just in the month of October. 


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