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The word "Dallas," in the public imagination, refers not to a city but to a violent event that involves a troubled young man with military experience, a powerful rifle, an apparent mix of psychiatric trauma and vaguely political anger, and a sequence of sniper shots that turn a previously harmonious public political event into a deadly tragedy that transforms U.S. history.

For decades, Dallas referred to the Kennedy assassination of 1963, but now, with those same ingredients, also is forever linked to the awful police massacre of July 7, 2016 – an act that shattered a peaceful protest against escalating scenes of police violence against black Americans, and which seems poised to inflame further the extremism and rage that have defined this disturbing year in U.S. politics.

The similarities between Lee Harvey Oswald and Micah Xavier Johnson, who died early Thursday morning after killing five Dallas police officers from a location that happened to be a few blocks away from the Texas School Book Depository, probably don't extend much further than that. The fact that Mr. Johnson is black, and said he killed police because he wanted revenge against white violence, is very likely to unleash a disturbing series of political and human responses unique to 2016. But there is a mounting sense that the United States has returned to an era of political violence, overt racism and mass protest similar to its ugly experience in the 1960s.

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America once again finds itself plunged into a historic moment when white police receive little punishment for stopping black motorists for broken taillights or other questionable charges and then shooting them, when condemnations of entire racial and ethnic groups are an acceptable part of conventional politics, when violent protests over racial injustice shut down major cities, when the Republican Party's racist fringe is in the foreground and when assassination and fringe-group violence are part of the daily news. It seems like an out-of-focus moment from the worst years of the 1960s.

This is not, however, the United States of the 1960s. For all the headline horrors, this is a far less violent time: Rates of murder, assault, rape and most other violent crimes are an order of magnitude lower. Black Americans live in far less segregated cities and schools, and experience far more economic, educational and employment equality than they did then (even if full equality remains a distant hope and insults ranging from police harassment to lead poisoning remain largely black experiences). In everything from crime rates to drug use, teen pregnancy and school-dropout rates, Americans, and especially black Americans, are in a better world.

What is different now is not the level of violence, but the character of it. At the outset of the 1960s, more Americans owned guns and shot each other, but they were less powerful weapons and generally used for more mundane crimes, though the decade came to be defined by a specific crime, the targeted assassination.

Today's U.S. violence is overwhelmingly defined by a type of crime that was first committed in the United States in 1966 by another troubled 25-year-old man with military experience, Charles Whitman, who brought a small arsenal to the University of Texas clock tower and shot 49 people, killing 16. This marked the dawn of the modern mass shooting – of which Thursday's Dallas massacre was the 177th to have occurred in the United States so far this year.

And yet this is another link between that earlier era of public violence and today: The riots, assassinations and burning cities of the 1960s were not, in the end, a descent into perpetual chaos and enmity, but rather the turmoil associated with large-scale social change – especially the struggle for racial and sexual equality – that had far more dramatic and lasting legacies than the violence itself.

And it's worth remembering that Thursday's murders punctuated and ruined a peaceful march for justice and equal treatment at the hands of police – a march that brought together, in happy co-operation, the Dallas police and the local branch of a continent-wide movement to end police discrimination against black people.

And that is the other larger public meaning of "Dallas" – it is the major U.S. city that has done the most to end public racial discrimination and change the nature of its policing, to dramatically reduce the rates of police violence and targeting of minorities (complaints of police abuse dropped 82 per cent there between 2010 and 2016), and to create a genuine sense of harmony between the police force and black populations, a harmony that was visible before the bullets rained down.

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It is a model of reform that other major cities in the United States and Canada could do well to emulate. And if the event now known as Dallas marks the beginning of an even uglier moment in U.S. politics and public life, it may also have another, more welcome legacy.

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