Is the United States on the verge of a race war? You might think so if you saw the New York Post’s “Civil War” front page the morning after the killing of five Dallas police officers. Or if you watched the YouTube clip of Baton Rouge shooter Gavin Long declaring, “It’s a time for peace, but it’s a time for war, and most of the times when you want peace, you got to go to war.” Or read the tweet from former congressman Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), warning “This is war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.” Or if you watched former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s speech at the Republican National Convention: “The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe. They fear for their children. They fear for themselves. They fear for our police officers, who are being targeted, with a target on their back.”
It’s easy to understand why, according to new polling, Americans say race relations are getting worse. But despite real fears and frustrations, and those who are trying to capitalize on those fears and frustrations, the United States is unlikely to return to the widespread, violent civil disorder of the 1960s. Improvements in policing and community relations, along with the fragmentation of extremist groups, provide a bulwark against anything approximating a race war.
The United States was a powder keg in the mid ’60s — and there are indeed some parallels to social conditions today. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were momentous for blacks in the South, but the laws did little to address the grievances of blacks in northern and western cities, where people of color could already vote and where discrimination was less overt. Blacks everywhere grew frustrated with the realities of de facto economic injustice. Then, as now, the black unemployment rate was approximately double that for whites, and median income was approximately 40 percent lower. Racial disparities persisted in housing, education and political influence. And racial targeting by the police increased the perception of powerlessness within black communities. Even still, as now, there was anxiety among some whites that they were losing out to people of color. When campaigning in 1965 to become the first big-city black mayor, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes (D) felt the need to pledge: “My election would not mean a Negro takeover, it would not mean the establishment of a Negro cabinet. My election would mean the mayor just happened to come from the Negro group.”
But the parallels shouldn’t be overstated. The tensions of the ’60s erupted into racial violence on a level that dwarfs anything seen today by several orders of magnitude. According to calculations by economists William Collins and Robert Margo, from the beginning of 1965 through the end of 1968, there were 533 urban riots resulting in 195 deaths, 9,760 injuries and 14,486 instances of arson. The atmosphere was such that a false rumor that a black cab driver had died in police custody in Newark, N.J., prompted violence that left 26 people dead and 750 injured, while causing more than $10 million in property damage (more than $70 million in today’s dollars).
Compare that to the overwhelmingly peaceful protests in the four years since George Zimmerman was indicted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Even the most chaotic episodes have been relatively mild. In Baltimore, for instance, riots after the death of Freddie Gray resulted in injuries to more than 150 police officers, 144 vehicles set on fire and property damage estimated at nearly $13 million; no protesters or police were killed. As The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has written, the rate of killings of police officers has been declining since the ’70s, with 2015 being the second safest year for police in decades.
One reason the protests have remained relatively contained has to do with police-community relations. Yes, too many people — and a disproportionate number of black people — are shot by police. Yes, there is still institutionalized racism in the criminal justice system. And yes, many blacks, especially, say they can’t trust law enforcement officials.
But present-day interactions between police and protesters have ranged from tense (in Ferguson, Mo.) to friendly (in Dallas). That’s a world away from the 1960s, when police forces allowed Ku Klux Klan members to savagely beat non-violent protesters on those occasions when they themselves were not delivering the beat-downs. Outside the South, such interactions were less profound and violent, but still routine. It was a presidential commission — the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders led by then-Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner — not the Black Panthers, that, in 1968, affirmed the widespread belief among blacks that police “symbolize white power, white racism, and white oppression.”
In response to the Kerner report, police departments raised their standards of professionalism and increased the diversity of their forces. While urban police forces still disproportionately employ white officers relative to the demographics of the communities they serve, the overall number of blacks in law enforcement roughly approximates their presence in the overall U.S. population. Some of the sites of the worst police abuses in the 1960s, including Birmingham, Ala., now have black police chiefs. And some of those chiefs, like Dallas’s David Brown, have implemented community policing policies that have reduced citizen complaints and sought to counter the idea that police are racist oppressors.
The reality that Black Lives Matter activists are willing to deliberate with Brown and other police commissioners, that BLM consistently condemns acts of violence against officers, also works against the narrative that there is some kind “war on police.” The Black Panthers favored retaliatory violence for alleged police misconduct, and did so in armed street battles — they surely never praised a police chief.
Extremist groups today also hold much less sway. By the end of the ’60s, federal law enforcement was becoming quite adept at infiltrating and disrupting white supremacist groups. Experts say there are approximately 8,000 active Ku Klux Klan members in the United States today; in contrast, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, at its peak membership under the leadership of Grand Wizard Sam Bowers in 1965, had close to 10,000 members. Organized group violence, of the kind perpetrated by Bowers, is all but unknown.
Similarly, there is no major black nationalist movement in the United States today. The New Black Panther Party lacks the numbers and the national appeal of the original Panthers, who espoused revolutionary Marxism while also providing free breakfasts and health care to inner-city residents.
Unfortunately, today’s extremist groups are, in many ways, even more strident and radical than their predecessors.
Christian Identity, a theology that anticipates a holy race war, is now ubiquitous among white supremacist groups, far more so than it was in the 1960s. These groups say they must support a heavenly ordained campaign of ethnic cleansing to rid the world of Jews and people of color. Christian Identity has influenced the activities of domestic terrorists, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Charleston, S.C., church shooter Dylann Roof.
Meanwhile, founding members of the original Panthers have criticized the New Black Panther Party as “a black racist hate group” that has “hijacked our name and are hijacking our history” while promoting an agenda that “flies directly in the face of the Black Panthers’ multicultural ideology and purpose.” The Anti-Defamation League assesses that “while the NBPP attracts some followers under the guise of championing Black empowerment and civil rights, its record of racism and anti-Semitism has tarnished its efforts to promote Black pride and consciousness.” The group has advocated killing white people generally, but especially police, Jews, babies and churchgoers. Their rhetoric may have helped inspire Dallas sniper Micah Johnson, who followed the NBPP online.
Like the Islamic State, which can spread its propaganda on the Internet and inspire lone-wolf attacks even as it suffers battlefield setbacks, America’s fragmented domestic extremist groups understand that the best chance of projecting their power is in radicalizing and weaponizing the disaffected.
The United States will never descend into the race war that extremists want, but determined zealots can create plenty of chaos in pursuit of that goal. Giving into the fear and racial anxiety they hope to foment is a danger unto itself. Let’s disappoint them.