On December 18, 2020 we graduated from one of the top Conflict Resolution programs in the country, trained in the intricacies of peace in a city increasingly torn apart by division. Just over one month later, on a cold January morning, standing on the very steps where insurrectionists lay siege to the US Capitol only two weeks prior, newly elected President Joseph R. Biden Jr. addressed a divided country from a militarized city, and called for unity and peace. The message was one Biden has repeated throughout a bitter election campaign — that to overcome our demons, we must “open our hearts,” “stand in another’s shoes,” and “learn to hear and see each other again.”
These are certainly positive sentiments, but not enough to rebuild the wreckage caused by the most recent resurgence of white supremacy or the forces that have enabled it for decades. Calls for unity alone cannot bridge the deep, ever-widening divides within and between communities, nor stem the cascading hate rotting America from the inside.
AMERICAN FAULT LINES
The pageantry of democracy cannot — and should not — hide its pain. Donald Trump might have left the national political fold for now, but the hatred, division and paranoia that ushered his rise remain. White supremacy— and the hierarchy of race and gender it upholds — has always been an inextricable part of America, but over the past four years, white supremacist ideology and action has been aided, abetted, and emboldened from the highest echelons of power.
There is no dearth of analyses on what is at stake or just how quickly and comprehensively risk can become reality. What seems to be missing — at least from public debate — is how we are going to tactically approach and adopt the solutions this country so desperately needs.
In 2017, hundreds of neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville for the “Unite the Right” march, which ended up being one of the largest white supremacist ralies the United States had experienced in decades. A woman, Heather Heyer, was killed. In the aftermath President Trump refused to condemn nativism and terror, and instead argued a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and counter-protestors. Over the course of Trump’s tenure, far-right ideologues drafted executive policy, eviscerating institutional safeguards against discrimination and red lighting communities of color. Independent and mainstream media outlets wantonly blurred the line between fact and fiction, irrevocably damaging public trust in the authenticity of information. Today, a growing number of lawmakers subscribe to the same conspiracy theories that contributed to the Capitol siege of January 6.
A fight for the “soul of the country” cannot simply stop at denouncing; it must invest time, energy and resources to restore trust in institutions that were used to uphold, incite, and actively support these discursive forces. There is no dearth of analyses on what is at stake or just how quickly and comprehensively risk can become reality. What seems to be missing — at least from public debate — is how we are going to tactically approach and adopt the solutions this country so desperately needs.
In this particular moment, poised at an inflection point between “before” and “after,” the United States must fully recognize and recommit to the purpose and promise of conflict resolution as a full, nuanced, and deeply relevant community of practice. With roots in the civil rights era, conflict resolution has come to encompass a wide range of efforts focused on enabling constructive dialogue, building consensus, conducting meaningful context analysis, and preventing and responding to violence around the world. Today, entire ecosystems of governmental and nongovernmental actors work to realize these goals — yet they remain under-supported and fundamentally under-utilized.
RED FLAGS, AND TANGIBLE RECOMMENDATIONS
Ever since the 2016 presidential campaign, internationally-focused conflict resolution practitioners have identified the “red flags” or risk factors that create and amplify the enabling conditions for large-scale violence in the United States. Those analyses only grew in number over the course of the Trump administration; international practitioners attempted to sound the alarm over dehumanizing political rhetoric, while multiple organizations operating in conflict and post-conflict environments abroad began piloting work in the United States based on the similarities they noted.
There are, for example, multiple efforts focused squarely on monitoring and countering speech that incites violence and on preventing and responding to identity-based violence. The Dangerous Speech Project studies dangerous speech around the world and researches methods to diminish such rhetoric, or its harmful effects, without impinging on freedom of expression; Over Zero works to understand the relationship between communication and violence, and partners with community leaders to pool knowledge and build capacity for collective action; Thought Partnerships convenes and supports practitioners to share experiences and best practices to advance non-violent, just and inclusive societies by working across the full spectrum of contexts from those experiencing increased hate crimes to those at risk of mass atrocities; researchers at Beyond Conflict are investigating how and why communities dehumanize one another and what strategies mitigate such habits and harms.
In the aftermath of the violent insurrection on Capitol Hill, Alliance for Peacebuilding called on the Biden administration to “develop an urgent and bold peacebuilding and conflict prevention plan that addresses the drivers of conflict and extremism and prevents and reduces violence” and offered policy recommendations to that end. Last week, Representative Sara Jacobs, who has a State Department background in conflict prevention, called on Nancy Pelosi to establish a truth commission to help address white supremacy and the roots of the attack on the Capitol.
These examples certainly do not comprise an exhaustive list of relevant activities, and each warrants careful thought and reflection. They do, however, represent a meaningful portion of conflict-resolution efforts and models offering nuance and tactics to the repeated calls to unite and heal.
CONFLICT RESOLUTION’S VALUE-ADD
Conflict resolution does not and should not replace or supersede the incredibly important, ongoing efforts to advance other social justice causes, including those to advance racial justice and racial equity. It is also critically important that the burden of uniting and healing does not unduly fall on communities who have absorbed the traumatic consequences of its failures.
Rather, the long-term success and legitimacy of any conflict resolution work in the United States hinges on intentional research, learning and trust-building with domestic actors and organizations who have focused on countering hate, protecting civil rights, and advancing nonviolent resistance for decades. Experts who continue to offer lessons from abroad note that impact of conflict resolution is limited because the language around healing and reconciliation — that is the core to this kind of work — is often siloed.
Too often, peace is mistaken with the absence of overt violence. But a positive peace — a peace that lasts — requires active participation from all involved. America must recognize the harm and the hurt caused, and center accountability and justice to forge an inclusive path. Words help, intent matters, but the full professional community we contribute to is much more than that; and with their expertise and collaboration, it is deliberate, definitive action that will ultimately move this country forward.
Caroline Brazill and Imrul Islam are recent graduates of Georgetown University’s MA in Conflict Resolution program working on issues of human rights in Washington, DC.