Tensions over race may seem to some to be at an all-time high following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis police custody. But scholar Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, says this moment of national unrest is especially significant because of the threat racism poses to our democracy.

Racism has “been like this underground stream through all of American history. It’s always there, kind of waiting to be tapped, and sometimes it comes to the surface more than others,” Mettler said.

Racial conflict has now been layered on top of an already deeply polarized political system, she said, "with one side insisting upon 'law and order' ... and the other side saying, 'We need racial equality in the United States and police brutality is a huge problem, and it’s against what the United States is supposed to stand for.'"

Mettler said she believes the way President Donald Trump has used racial divisions for political gain is similar to a period in the 1890s when the Democratic Party — with the support of white supremacists — tried to dominate the political scene in the South. In the mixed-race community of Wilmington, North Carolina, the results were ugly. There was rampant voter fraud, followed by a coup d’état and a massacre on Nov. 10, 1898.

The true story of the massacre was not told in student history books, according to David Zucchino, the author of “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy.” He went to high school and college in North Carolina but never heard about the tragic events in Wilmington until the hundredth anniversary of the coup.

The story is of great interest to Mettler, who has also written about it, because of the way in which democracy was curtailed in Wilmington — much as it had been in the 1790s and in the lead-up to the Civil War, during the Great Depression, during Watergate and now, she said.

Mettler, the co-author with Robert Lieberman of "Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy," has identified four issues that have historically undermined American democracy. For the first time in U.S. history, all four factors: expansive presidential power, political polarization, rising economic inequality and racism or nativism, are at play at the same time, the authors claim.

While the threats are not new, they are convinced that their confluence under Trump has led to the weakening of the very necessary checks and balances built into our political system. The pillars of American democracy, including the rule of law, the legitimacy of opposition and free and fair elections, are under attack now like never before, Mettler said.

She expressed concern about the forthcoming presidential election because of the added crisis of the coronavirus pandemic. “There’s just a lot more opportunity for politicians to then play with electoral rules and procedures in ways that could help them to gain advantage,” Mettler said.

The political scientist said she fears there could be hotly contested results in November and even violence. If Trump is re-elected, Mettler predicts damage to the integrity of civil rights and liberties and potentially the emergence of a so-called “competitive authoritarian regime” which only bears the “outer look of democracy.”

The fate of the country’s future has also been on the mind of presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, who in a recent speech in Philadelphia criticized the president for his response to the protests against police brutality and condemned Trump for “sweeping away all the guardrails that have long protected our democracy.”

Biden also said that during some of the darkest moments of despair in U.S. history, the nation has made some of the greatest progress. Still, it may be a while before we can see what progress, if any, comes from this difficult moment.

Elizabeth Ross is the senior producer of Innovation Hub. Follow her on Twitter: @eross6