In the pantheon of national horrors, the term "race war" surely ranks in the public psyche right up with firebells like "nuclear holocaust," "Great Depression," and "polio epidemic."
Those last three wolves no longer lurk at the door, but "race war" has obdurately endured as an apocalyptic possibility since Colonial America committed its historical Original Sin of bringing the first African slaves to Maryland in the 1630s.
Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder himself, never spoke of "race war," but he seemed to recognize its possibility. Indeed, he still lived when, in 1822, a free black man in Charleston named Denmark Vesey conspired to launch a military action to free the bondsmen. Vesey was thwarted when a slave betrayed him, but a decade later, Nat Turner, a slave driven by messianic vision, actually started a "race war." For 48 fearful hours Nat's ragtag army roamed the Virginia countryside, slaughtering some 70 whites before the the rebellion was crushed; in its wake, innocent slaves across the South endured a reign of terror.
But even these disasters failed to quell the slaves' propensity for mutiny. Herbert Aptheker's 1943 history, "American Negro Slave Revolts," documented more than 1,000 slave rebellions.
A hundred years after Emancipation, in 1963, James Baldwin wrote in his prophetic warning, "The Fire Next Time," that blacks in America "may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream." Before the decade was out Baldwin's dire augury would be validated by the Watts riots in 1965 and the devastation of American cities, including Baltimore, that followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968.
Against that grim background, the eminent journalist Carl Rowan can scarcely be accused of idle fearmongering when he writes a new book bluntly titled "The Coming Race War in America." Rowan believes that a lethal confluence - the rise of heavily armed white-supremacy militias, the abandonment of the federal role in welfare and civil-rights protection, the growing rage of jobless, fatherless young black males mired in inner-city squalor - makes a racial explosion on an unprecedented scale all but inevitable.
Rowan seems uncertain about what form this conflict will take: At one point he foresees a conflagration in which free-lance guerrilla groups of white militiamen, urban gang members, ad hoc bands of Asians and Hispanics, even Middle East-connected terrorists, will be shooting it out in the streets, Sarajevo-style, with a helpless populace caught in the crossfire. A more plausible scenario envisions simply a nationwide spontaneous outbreak of unimaginable urban violence.
Rowan's jeremiad consists largely of long recitations of familiar recent events which he sees as road signs pointing the way to "the coming race war." He closes with a brief closing chapter on "How to Prevent 'Armageddon,' " which pretty much simply restates wearied old public-policy palliatives - inner-city economic development, strong gun-control laws, more money for education, more interracial "dialogue," etc., etc.
As a case-statement, Rowan's book lacks the forceful impact of William Julius Wilson's new book, "When Work Disappears," in which the Harvard scholar reveals that for the first time in this century, over half of all adults in inner cities now are not working. Moreover, Wilson candidly confronts what he calls "ghetto-related behavior and attitudes" which have made the task of amelioration all the harder. Still, Wilson believes that inner-city people yearn to work, to form families, to own homes and businesses, and he argues persuasively that if the private sector cannot create jobs, then government must do so through CCC- and WPA-style programs of the Depression era.
My acquaintance with Carl Rowan goes back to the 1950s when, as young journalists, we covered Dr. King in Montgomery. Like Rowan, I spent a major part of my career covering civil rights, and I fully share Rowan's trepidation over the present state of race relations. But while no one can rule out the possibility of 1960s-style urban disorders, I do not for one moment believe that we are on the verge of a "race war."
Still, I do find certain ominous parallels in the 19th and the 20th centuries. The 1850s and the 1950s were both decades of building tensions which culminated, in the '60s of the respective centuries, in the Civil War and the civil rights revolution. The 1970s saw a repeat of the Reconstruction of the 1870s, followed by a national weariness over the intractable problem of race to the point that Rowan can rightly contend that the cause once again has been largely abandoned.
Carl Rowan sees the acquittal of O. J. Simpson as a watershed event toward his predicted "race war." But Rowan gives no attention to another event that occurred about the same time, with equally polarizing consequences: the reelection of Marion Barry, a man viewed by many as the embodiment of incompetence and corruption in city government, as mayor of Washington.
With Washington's fiscal functions now taken over by a federally appointed "control board," and with dozens of city agencies operating under federal court orders, the city's government has been reduced roughly to the status of those "Legislative Councils" which the British patronizingly created in the waning days of their colonial Empire. It is not inconceivable that one day some federal judge, at the end of patience with Marion Barry and assorted ad hoc mechanisms ceaselessly battling for the control, will appoint a "special master," with the powers of a colonial governor, to administer Washington's affairs.
So it cannot be ruled out that just as slavery was firmly in place at the turn of the 19th century, and segregation at the turn of the 20th, so a stealthy, incremental "New Colonialism" will be in place at the turn of the 21st.
A truly dispiriting prospect, not much better than the "race war" which Carl Rowan foresees. But these dismal alternatives may be avoided only by the hard work of mustering the political will, vTC to use Jesse Jackson's refrain, to keep hope alive by embracing William Julius Wilson's proposals to make work available once more, for all people, in all places in the land.
Ray Jenkins, who retired in 1992 as editorial page editor of Th Evening Sun, covered the civil rights movement as a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser, a paper he later edited and worked at for 20 years.