Americans can no longer hide behind a vision of US exceptionalism. The impacts of long-standing structural racism, inherent to the country since the founding of our nation, have created deep and legitimate grievances. The necessary expression of these grievances is both essential to right the historical and present wrongs and is taking place within a broader context of national fragmentation and political polarization. Ignoring or failing to address long-standing structural racism is made more difficult when forces, both foreign and domestic, are lined up to advance polarization across our country. The tragic death of George Floyd is the latest spark, triggering an essential and urgent demand for action. While simultaneously, it is also providing an opportunity for antagonists to stoke the flames of polarization, invoking hard security responses, and dividing Americans during a global pandemic when solidarity is most needed.
In 2003, we developed and built the U.S. government’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under President George W. Bush’s administration. We also developed the conflict analysis framework designed to understand dynamics that heighten the risk of violence and identify opportunities to transform conflict toward peace, justice, and resilience. Applying that framework to the discord we are witnessing in the United States today gives us insights into how to address systemic inequalities and institutional failures that are driving violence and instability.
Grievances are deep feelings of dissatisfaction among society’s members regarding how their society is organized, how it impacts their lives, and the perception (real or imagined) that their needs, including security or livelihoods, are not met and that their interests or values are threatened. The United States is not immune; many communities have vocalized their grievances now and in the past. The US today is home to a range of significant grievances, including rising economic elitism, political exclusion, and social marginalization.
The economic reality for most Americans is their income has not kept up with the cost of living, and essentials, including healthcare and education, have been denuded and privatized. In an exceptionally cynical twist, these very real grievances are being manipulated by the very elite who are benefiting the most including political leaders, foreign powers, and extremists. They inflame and exacerbate long-standing historic prejudices by stoking so-called “white vulnerability,” which thrives on the belief that whites are losing out to other groups. The rise of hate groups, as recorded by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is also a disturbing trend that provides key mobilizers the ability to harness collective action to exert their perceived superiority as exemplified by the organized violence in Charlottesville.
In reality, our economic system, consisting of laws, regulatory institutions, and tax rules, drives wealth to a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans, leaving the majority of the country with stagnating wages and reduced economic mobility. This inequality is especially visible in communities of color and rural communities. Systemic racial inequality thrives in America, as exemplified by the significant disparity of wealth, which is unequally distributed by race, particularly between white and brown and black households.
The criminal justice system presents a further arm of structural racism. Even with years of reform in many jurisdictions, the overwhelming burden of incarceration and contact with the law is born by African Americans, including unequal penalties for the same crimes committed by whites. While progress has been made, it is very often met with significant backlash — reflecting in large part just how entrenched racism is in our country.
These grievances coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic crisis are significantly exacerbating conflict drivers and the threat of increased violence and instability. The U.S. government’s inability to effectively contain the virus’s spread is further eroding trust in institutions. Additionally, COVID-19 is impacting the African American and Hispanic communities financially the hardest, and the African American community is dying at a disproportionately high rate. The pandemic is also worsening the political divide.
While every country has conflict and grievances, it is the legitimacy and effectiveness of informal and formal institutions — and the leaders of those institutions — to manage grievances, so groups do not resort to violence. Unfortunately, the US has been consistently sliding down indices that measure peace and security, democracy, and trust in institutions. In 2016, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States to a “flawed democracy.” According to a new Pew Research Center report, Americans see declining levels of trust in the country, whether it is their confidence in the federal government and elected officials or their trust of each other. Additionally, the report finds that white older Americans with higher education degrees and income levels have a higher level of trust in institutions. However, non-white Americans with less education and income have lower levels of trust, and many believe these trust deficiencies are becoming more entrenched and harder to solve.
Ironically, the United States, in December 2019, adopted the Global Fragility Act, which is a significant step forward in US government planning and operations for addressing international state fragility and prevention of violent conflict. The reasons for state fragility are complex, but we can measure it because it is not unpredictable. Fragility metrics include the degree to which members of society trust the effectiveness and legitimacy of its government institutions, regional conflicts, unresolved group grievances, corruption, and fractured leadership. Through this lens, U.S. performance across a series of fragility indicators is significantly declining.
We cannot pretend America is alright, and we only need to wait for the latest round of violent protests to end or a vaccine to go back to “normal.” As professionals who work in countries torn apart by violence, we strive to understand what drives violent conflict and how to prevent it. The growing gulf between the haves and have-nots, deep-seated racial inequality, diminishing trust and viability of government institutions, and intentional manipulation of all of the above to sow discord are moving the country dangerously close to greater instability and violent conflict.
However, there are bright spots. Groups like the Equal Justice Initiative, The Minnesota Freedom Fund, and the Center for Policing Equity are working alongside some governors, mayors and district attorneys to begin the long-needed structural reforms to our criminal justice system. Additionally, Opportunity Insights is using big data to analyze what policies work to address entrenched economic inequality and implement them in cities throughout the country. We applaud this work at the state and local level where much of our criminal justice system is run. But it is not enough.
As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, in the absence of national leadership, local city, county, and state leaders are stepping in to provide guidance, material, and support to their constituents. And yet, over 100,000 people have died. Cities and states can’t do it alone. In the same way, local and state leaders must continue to work with communities to address long-standing structural racism and inequalities by reforming punitive policing. Simultaneously the national government has an urgent and crucial role to play in reinforcing positive efforts and holding regressive local actors and institutions accountable and not escalating violence. It will take bold leadership across federal, state, and local levels to address these dynamics, including unequal access to justice, education, jobs, and health care.
We call on our federal and state governments to immediately de-escalate, including denouncing violence committed by police and the national guard in the name of security. We further call on the government to develop a multi-sectoral conflict prevention plan based on evidence of what works, addressing grievances, investing in institutions that are worthy of trust, and repairing fragmented relationships between individuals and groups. It’s time for Americans to address our country’s fragility to build a truly equitable, just and fair society for all Americans. We know what to do — let’s do it.
Elisabeth Dallas, Former Senior Conflict and Peacebuilding Advisor, Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, USAID
Liz Hume, Former Senior Conflict Advisor and Acting Director, Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, USAID and Currently Vice President of the Alliance for Peacebuilding
Sana Hussain, Former Senior Conflict and Peacebuilding Advisor, Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, USAID
Elisabeth Kvitashvili, Retired USAID Senior Foreign Service Officer and Founding Director of Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, USAID
Neil A. Levine, Former Director, Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, USAID
Rachel Locke, Former Senior Conflict and Policy Advisor, Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, USAID
Sharon Morris, Former Senior Advisor, Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, USAID and former Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, U.S. Department of State