White Supremacist Provocateurs Are Tipping America’s Protests Into a Race War

Four years ago, amidst the civil unrest that followed five years of well-publicized reports of shootings (by law enforcement) of unarmed black men, a growing chorus of public commentators suggested that America was on the verge of experiencing "another 1968" – waves of violent, political protests with military and law enforcement responses, specifically over ongoing issues with racial oppression. 

As a historian, I myself rejected the characterization that America was heading towards a race war, arguing that improvements in race relations and economic opportunities for African Americans, while far from perfect, mitigated against any kind of ongoing, widespread unrest along the lines of what we saw in 1968. 

I am no longer as optimistic.

As in 2016, 1968 was a culmination of several years of violent, political upheaval in the United States, though in late 60s it was on a much greater scale. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did very little to address the ongoing concerns of black Americans outside of the south, who could already vote and who faced de facto rather than de jure discrimination.

Few issues highlighted the ongoing racial oppression more than policing with widespread reports, especially in urban centers outside of the south, of abusive and discriminatory law enforcement practices. 

Demonstrators protest the killing of George Floyd outside of the city’s 5th police precinct on May 30, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.AFP

Even rumors of excessive force against black citizens spurred violent rebellion in many instances, lighting powder kegs of frustration in adjacent cities. Economists William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo identified 11 urban riots in 1965; 53 in 1966; 158 in 1967 and 289 in 1968.                                                                   

But even after 1968, political violence continued (230 more riots by 1971) and arguably increased as it took different, non-racial, forms. Between 1971 and 1972, according to the FBI, Americans experienced on average more than three domestic-terrorist bombings per day, often from radical, anti-war groups.