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Cold War Strategies for America’s Racial Divide

In this time of growing hostility, there may be important things to learn from another time of deep conflict—one that resolved in a surprisingly peaceful way

The death of George Floyd caused by a police officer epitomized the fears that many black Americans live with on a daily basis. As a people, we are divided on how to interpret and then resolve these fears. In The Desecration of American Culture, Paul K. Harker observed of American society, “…we force ourselves into divided groups and alienate ourselves from a shared culture.” Harker believes the answer lies in “peaceful discussion groups to educate people of the core values and fundamental traditions of American culture.” In stark contrast, Arwa Mawddawi from the Guardian recently wrote, “The uncomfortable truth is that, sometimes, violence is the only answer left.” 

The divergence in proposed resolutions of these racial concerns is striking. To complicate matters further, some are simply unwilling to accept that there is a problem at all or that people of color are experiencing a vastly different reality than themselves. Some even compound the issue by mocking the tragedies of others, as evidenced by videos and pictures showing teens kneeling on the necks of friends for laughs and likes on social media. 

We hold, within our minds, many thoughts and beliefs that are simply incorrect.

Interestingly enough, these complex and vexing circumstances of division have historical precedents that prompted solutions practiced during the Cold War and that are critically relevant still today. Similar to the Cold War, the racial divide is a complex problem steeped in history, propaganda, and bias. And the strategies that resolved the Cold War led to the most successful mass de-escalation project witnessed by the world perhaps in all of history. These strategies birthed truths that could potentially apply to your marriage, to interpersonal relationships, coworkers, bosses, and many other areas of life. Those truths point toward three main goals Americans might be encouraged to adopt: be aware of personal biases, immerse yourself in and support ethics education, and take personal responsibility in civic duties.  

Uncomfortable Truths  

Tackling these racial division issues is as difficult as nailing jelly to a tree arguably because so many of our perspectives are already skewed to begin with. The uncomfortable truth is that we hold, within our minds, many thoughts and beliefs that are simply incorrect. Inside our conscious mind, we have formed survival biases, made in our youthsnap judgments that may have helped our brain at one time navigate a path of safety, but that later often turn out to be wrong and baseless fears that must be re-evaluated as we mature.

Sir Thomas More drew out one of the implications of our profoundly diverse socializations in his book Utopia: “For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”  Whether coming from the inside or the outside, most of us naturally resist the discomfort of correcting and revising our thinking, and it quickly becomes apparent that the “ill-educated” people referred to in More’s passage are all of usblack and white, red and blue.  

Whatever else people may believe about what’s taking place, the simple truth is that many black people are afraid of being disproportionately punished for crimes in comparison to white people.  At the same time, police officers are rightly concerned about becoming victims of the crimes they are trying to stop. This is the overlooked convergence between these similar narratives of fear and victimization from each group; but rather than empathizing with common concerns, we are seeing an escalating spiral into mutual hatred and violence.  

Amplifying the problem, the media, and its fear-reinforcing reporting gives the impression that these horrible experiences are happening everywhere and always. We have not yet erased the venom of racial tension and brutality nor our ability to profit from it in the American ethos. That’s why I believe the pathway for us to overcome the corruption of our education and manners is to apply ourselves to multiple strategies and not rely on one alone. The strategies below are time-honored truths that are best employed in concert (something you might call multilateral action).

A Swift History Lesson

While the Cold War era divide between the USA and the Soviet Union is far from a perfect analogy of black versus white division, it does provide a useful example of complex conflict resolution. Prior to World War II, communist-fearful America refused to recognize the USSR. Resentful Russians noted well that the US military’s delay in joining WWII cost Russia a staggering twenty million lives. After WWII in 1946, Winston Churchill famously pronounced that an “iron curtain had descended across the continent,” ushering in the Cold War. Suddenly there were two world superpowers, armed to the teeth, in a staredown. The world seemed poised on the brink of disaster for a couple of generations, Then in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the reins of power. American goods, discussions, ideas, deals, and friendships began to trickle more into the country. So much so that by June of 1989 Poland decided to grant themselves an elected noncommunist governing body. In a few short months, not only did the Berlin wall fall but, one by one, Soviet states pulled from the Soviet empire to declare themselves independent countries. By 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved. Decades were subsequently spent turning hearts towards democracy and away from mutually assured destruction.

How Did it End?

Somewhere in the middle of that history lesson, we glossed right over a few specific ideas and actions that substantially changed the landscape of the Cold War. There were well over 90 armed conflicts towards the end of the Cold War era, so it’s helpful to not view this as one single fight but rather, many conflicts out of which emerged the encouraging science of armistice. During this time and since, conflict resolution efforts aiming at peace agreements often had positive, even stunning, outcomes in long-standing disputes.

The National Research Council highlighted four main strategies they conclude were key tools that helped to end the Cold War conflict: 

Power Politics 

    • Threats of force/action
    • Building alliances
    • Bargaining and mediation 

Conflict Transformation

    • Problem-solving processes

Conflict Prevention 

    • Electoral system design
    • Autonomy
    • Legal guarantees of free speech and free association
    • Civilian control of military organizations

Normative Shift

    • Establishing the European Co-op entity (OSCE), which provided a powerful voice for human rights norms. 

My analysis will briefly consider the relevance of these strategies critical in the cold war era when it comes to today’s issues.

Power Politics

Though laws can dissuade us, history teaches us they do not change actual individual behavior in a sustainable way.

Power politics is a concept that refers to any countermove that physically separates warring parties to ensure a forced, albeit short-term, end of violence. Hard consequences for crossing the line are the hallmark signature of power politics. Unsurprising to many of us, a vast array of power politics strategies are already being used in the US in the context of addressing racism. 

Threats of force in the realm of power politics, however, should only be considered a first small step of defense because they are not viable long term solutions alone. Though laws can dissuade us, history teaches us they do not change actual individual behavior in a sustainable way, since underlying issues are not typically resolved. In fact, some laws have only made things worse. For example, currently, in Arizona, you will serve more time for the possession of meth than for heroin when heroin is far more devastating and dangerous to a community. Simple marijuana possession can also result in up to two years in jail and a $150,000 fine. Multiplying laws and consequences does not often change behavior, but it does tend to bury people who are already in poverty beneath insurmountable fines and penalties. A desperate and impoverished person with a criminal record is all but unemployable and will often resort to additional criminal activity since other options are out of reach. 

This is why we must address other impactful tools beyond simply making more laws and bills – allowing ourselves to engage in ethical discussions at the heart of policymaking as a people. Mawddawi’s bold words are illustrative, “… I’m certainly not calling for violence. I’m simply saying we must interrogate what we call ‘violence’ and what we call ‘policy.’ Many of the people yelling “violence is not the answer” about the riots in Minneapolis are the same people who wholeheartedly support America’s endless wars.” 

Whatever power politics might call for among leadership, the invitation for the average person is recommitting to show up for civic duties and think outside of the box—beckoning us individually to take it upon ourselves to show up for our civic duties, to be the change we wish to see in the world, and explore whatever uncomfortable dissonance may exist in our ethical beliefs.  

Conflict Transformation and Prevention

If many individuals hadn’t seen the need for multilateral de-escalation during the Cold War, this could now be a post-nuclear fallout world. What would mutual de-escalation look like in our current racial standoff?  

For starters, whatever disagreements may exist around “white privilege” or “systemic racism,” so many black people are upset that surely we can at least agree that the world will be better off if we can avoid escalating this conflict into something broader. This is the idea behind Conflict Transformation. 

During the Cold War, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger began to see the need for what he called “the negotiation process.” The strategy was to mediate one small partial agreement after another towards the eventual goal of peace. Each small goal that was achieved created momentum and credibility over time, so that new steps were easier and easier to achieve. We have powerful examples of this strategy working in American conflict transformations. 

On a hot day in 1969, Mr. Rogers invited a black police officer to share a foot dip with him in a small pool on an episode for his Television show. Some have reduced this culturally shocking moment into an empty gesture. But this turned out to be an elegant example of Rogers engaging in conflict transformation with an emphasis on structural prevention. Conflict prevention is simply setting up the future with a plan to be not only better but to dissuade old patterns of thinking and acting.

Officer Clemmons and Fred Rogers recreated their 1969 foot bath during their final scene together in 1993. (c) The Fred Rogers Company

These two men sent a message through time to the future leaders of our nation, then children. This generous act demonstrated what it could look like if individuals from two different cultures and world views decided to set them aside and come together. Fred Rogers saw that if the children could be taught ethics, many would turn away from the cultural indoctrination of their fathers’ fears. He did it through a simple example that embodied unity instead of division. Black children saw a white man extending love towards a friendly black police officer. White children saw a black man in a position of authority and trust. All children saw a transformative model of kindness and friendship. 

This was a relatively small effort, yet it moved the hearts of millions of children and has become almost a cliché in today’s meme culture. We very well may have a shot at peace in part because of action like this taken decades ago to soften the hearts of the future. The strategy relied on the long game, much like our international efforts of peace. No one would say it was “enough” or the whole answer, but it was a stepor perhaps a leaptowards the goal. 

Conflict prevention in the Cold War era looked like Americans promoting and offering to help Russians build governmental stability through helping to construct democratic voting systems.  Whatever other systemic improvements may be needed, conflict prevention for our current situation of racial divide arguably points most urgently towards fostering expanded education efforts in ethics.

We must watch our tongues, with extra care, regarding how we talk about and relate to those around us.

Albert Camus one stated, “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.Education starts in the home. It consists of daily morals and ethics teachings for all children.  As parents, we must watch our tongues, with extra care, regarding how we talk about and relate to those around us. It cannot be stressed enough the extent to which that decision alone would eradicate so much of the fear and hate.

We cannot overlook the Cold War truth that the seeds of freedom were being intentionally sowed in Soviet soil by participants in the Dartmouth Conference, a continuous discourse between American and Soviet citizens. The ideas discussed became the “new political thinking” in Moscow. Continuous dialogue does work. We must take personal responsibility here. It should look like striking up conversations with those who are different from you and asking about their thoughts and experiences, why they feel the way they do, especially if this makes you uncomfortable. It looks like mutual exchanges, interpersonal listening, two-way sharing. It’s law enforcement officers accepting a role as conversation partners with vulnerable members of the communityagreeing to participate in workshops with children and visit school classrooms. It’s openly engaging in speech and debate. It’s teaching critical thinking skills so youth do not buy into social opinions so easily, and teaching reverence for all life. 

Normative Shift

A normative shift occurs when the view of the dominant group about an important issue changes.  In the Cold War era, normative change was first ushered in by soviet intellectuals who took personal responsibility for encouraging change by taking a dissident role in smuggling western literature into the country—something which Americans gleefully aided in. Momentum for change increased gradually over time as decisions were made to hold international academic conferences in the 1970s. In 1973, a proposal called the Soviet/Warsaw Pact was held to settle unresolved issues held over World War II. Thirty-five delegates from European countries including the Soviet Union attended, the U.S. and Canada were also in attendance. Eventually, this effort matured in the 1990s into a formal entity: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE has intervened in various ways in conflicts across a wide region, impressively without the use of force. They sought “détente,” the easing of hostility or strained relations, especially between countries. 

They worked to build a type of framework within which all the unified members could…

  1. Help one another with security needs
  2. Exchange information
  3. Foster peaceful resolution of differences
  4. Assist each other in the building more stable structures

We need to express care beyond our own engrossing worldswhile welcoming with more openness the natural differences in perspective that become more salient when we do just that. Writer Vickie Lee recently said, “We are meant to see things differently. If we think unity is just getting everyone to see the whole picture from the same angle, we’re doing it wrong. I think unity ought to be giving every angle it’s credence, gently tapping down the toxic ones, and then coming to a synergy that allows for a multiplicity, a complex chord structure rather than a single booming note.”

Normative change also occurs when we decide that the deterioration of ethics in our society is so offensive we are willing to set aside our personal hostility toward individuals and entities “on the other side.” Whether we define the enemy as Fox News or MSNBC, the protestors or the police, mask wearers or mask haters (or any of the other tribal dichotomies we have come to accept), we must reach across these lines of division in respectful dialogue with an aim towards ending racial divisions, and other hostilities that push us apart as well. On this basis, Americans can be singularly focused on achieving equality for all, without mandating a single perspective on how to do that.   

The beginning of normative change can be as surprisingly simple as identifying our biases and then listening to opposing viewpoints deeply. While we may not change our core beliefs, these core practices demonstrate a desire to learn to understand and appreciate the core beliefs of otherswhile being aware of our own motivating convictions. In this way, we can begin to appreciate at a deeper level how important differing viewpoints are in building an ethical society including points of view that may seem to be antithetical and impossibly at-odds with each other. 

In this case, that would include openly taking up questions like… 

  • Are you concerned when you hear white people say black people are responsible for a high percentage of criminal activity? Let’s talk about it. 
  • Are you alarmed at the lack of community love or support for your local police department? Let’s talk about it. 

In all these ways, we can seek peace with greater intentionality and strategywhich I believe can help us progress measurably with pressing issues by spurring us to do more than simply voice our opinion on social media. 

Wrapping it Up:

  1. Be self-aware of your biases. Spend time reading and listening to viewpoints that might be at odds with your own. Rather than assuming you already know the beliefs and thoughts of others, let’s bring our genuine curiosity to each other and ask more questions! 
  2. Support ethics education. Promote it in your local schools and community, in your own home, and in yourself. Develop your own commitment to the belief that everyone has the right to enjoy safety and that no group is more important than another. 
  3. Be involved. When the community calls upon you for a citizens watch, a council, a peaceful march, join inif not in support, then in constructive dissent. Vote, and show up to jury duty. Be active in your community

We have to recognize our own responsibility, show up, and participate in the solutions.

It’s tempting when major problems arise to attribute all the difficulties to “those people.”  But we need to acknowledge more honestly the degree to which these problems may not be “theirs” but “ours.” When the water coming into a sink looks murky, we might be tempted to accuse the city’s water system. But there is a sacrificial zinc anode inside home hot water tanks that must be replaced regularly. When neglected, rust will build up inside the tank and result in yellow water. The problem, in this case, is not at the water source but in our own home. 

These racial divides are in our own homes as well. We have to recognize our own responsibility, show up, and participate in the solutions.

No rhetoric of “let’s just hug it out” or “burn the place down” can ever lead us towards actual, legitimate solutions. Likewise, concluding that any real solution is impossible is, I would argue, an impressive rejection of ethics. It behooves us then, to at least “desire to believe” that conflict transformation is possible. 

In other words, it’s time we stop digging in our heels with “it will never work.” We have all the evidence we need from history, and perhaps, like the ending of the Cold War, the results will be better than we could have even anticipated. Let’s bring our genuine curiosity to each other and ask more questions!

“Man is not born to solve the problem of the universe, but to find out what he has to do; and to restrain himself within the limits of his comprehension.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


About the author

Roseanne Service

Roseanne Service is an entrepreneur. She has survived a brain-tumor and double-aneurysm. She frequently writes on faith and rhetoric.
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