America talks a lot about a 'race war.' Here's why it doesn't need to fight one

The Takeaway
A man protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 9, 2016.

The United States is still reeling from a week of racial tension and graphic violence, and while there's more than enough anger in America this summer, some are still fanning the fire.

Fox New's Bill O'Reilly has insisted that “white Americans despise” the Black Lives Matter movement, and the head of the National Association of Police Organizations has accused President Barack Obama of being responsible for a “War on Cops.”

As tension continues to mount, some claim that we’re starting to see the beginning of a race war in America. That's a narrative with a long history in the United States.

In a letter he wrote before assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth claimed that "this country was formed for the white, not for the black man" — a theme picked up by the KKK in its angry and murderous pursuit of white supremacy.

Back in 1967, black activists like Jamil Abdullah Al Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, also said that racial violence in the United States was unavoidable.

“I say violence is necessary," Al Amin said decades ago. "Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie. Americans taught the black people to be violent. We will use that violence to rid ourselves of oppression if necessary.”

And then there are The Turner Diaries from 1978 — a novel about a race war started to prevent the government from suspending the Constitution. The book seemed to inspire Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995.

Just last week after the shooting in Dallas, Texas, former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh wrote on Twitter: "3 Dallas Cops killed, 7 wounded. This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you." He later deleted that tweet and said he did not mean it as a call for violence.

So has the nation actually crossed some kind of violent threshold? 

It can feel that way, but Stanley Nelson, a documentary film director and MacArthur fellow who made the documentary, "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," believes there’s a way forward.

“I think that we may be on the edge of something good,” he says. “I think that people are looking at police violence and people are looking at racism in a different way than they were certainly [seeing things] even three days ago.”

The change in perception, Nelson says, can be linked to changing technology.

“The difference is that people have a camera in their pocket, and they’re able to film these things,” he says. “That’s what’s changed — the way we look at it — because we’re now able to see it and it’s impossible to deny.”

Though he does sense change, Nelson also says that there are no “clear, quick answers” to the questions surrounding racism, racial tension, police brutality and gun violence in America.

“There’s a feeling that there’s a culture in the police department that has to change, and how do you change a culture?” he asks. “I think one of the most startling things that’s happened is that these killings have gone on in every sector of the country — it’s not just the south, the north, or the east. So what does that say about police departments?”

As tensions continue to simmer, Nelson says that it’s important for America to “speak honestly about what is going on.” However, such an exercise seems to be increasingly difficult as the 2016 election marches forward.

“Donald Trump has fanned the flames of racism in this country,” Nelson says. “He was a real driving force in the birther movement, and he started out his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, and he’s called for banning Muslims from this country. There’s a feeling that we’re under attack, and at the same time, other Republicans are saying, ‘Yeah, that’s racist, but we’ll still support him.’ It’s very scary, I think, for African Americans to look out and see that Donald Trump has over 50 percent of the white male vote.”

When comparing the racial struggles of the 1960s to the present, Nelson argues there are several similarities — similarities to be hopeful about.

“One thing that’s important to remember about the ‘60s is that it was a movement not only of African Americans, but it was a movement of all people,” he says. “If you look at any of the huge marches, it’s not just black Americans, it’s white Americans, Asians and Latinos — everybody is participating. And I think just as today, everybody’s outraged by what’s going on. I hope that we are at the start of a movement.”

So while some claim that a race war is on the horizon, Nelson sees a future that joins together different groups.

“We’re at a place, hopefully, where change is something that people are thinking about, that black people, white people, Asians, Latinos — everybody in this country is thinking about how we get better,” he says. “That’s one of the things that the United States offers — the chance to get better.”

In order to see that things get better, Nelson argues that we must start viewing police brutality as a human issue instead of just a black or brown issue.

“I’m very heartened by young people,” he says. “When you look at these demonstrations that are taking place all over the country, it’s not just black people, it’s everybody who’s protesting. That’s what we have to understand — it has to be everybody who protests these police killings, which have gone on and on again for the last two years. Because of video cameras that we have in our pockets, we’ve seen evidence that this is really happening — irrefutable evidence. Before we could kind of pass it off.”

Rejecting calls for a race war and choosing a non-violent path forward is “the only way that you can win,” Nelson says.

“The very idea of the civil rights movement and non-violence was to say, ‘Look, look at what’s happening in the south — look at the dogs, look at the hoses. You have to pick a side,’” he says. “I think that’s maybe where we’re coming to now, and I think that’s maybe not a bad moment. Maybe it’s a moment of change.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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