The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have been described as a mirror into contemporary America, but they are also something else: A crystal ball.
Look past the headlines -- the debates over race and police militarization that have surfaced after the killing of an unarmed black youth by a white police officer -- and one can glimpse America's future, some historians and political scientists say.
No one is talking about an impending race war or a police state, but something more subtle. Unless Americans re-examine some assumptions they've made about themselves, they argue, Ferguson could be the future.
Assumption No. 1: Tiger Woods is going to save us
It's called the "browning of America." Google the phrase and you'll get 18 million hits. By 2050, most of the nation's citizens are expected to be people of color, according to the Pew Research Center.
Dig beneath the Google links and one can detect an emerging assumption: Racial flashpoints like Ferguson will fade in the future because no single race will be dominant. You could call it the Tiger Woods effect. The New American will claim multiple racial origins like Woods, the pro golfer. Demographic change will accomplish what a thousand national conversations on race could never do: lessen the sting of racial conflict.
A dramatic increase in interracial marriages will change the racial landscape as more people cross racial and ethnic lines to marry. But that change won't be a cure-all, says Rory Kramer, a sociology and criminology professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
He says racial progress is not inevitable with the browning of America.
"I don't want to deny the optimism," Kramer says. "I deny the assumption that it will happen without effort."
So does research from a prominent American sociologist. Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," says his studies of multiracial neighborhoods in America show that more diversity initially erodes community.
In his 2007 paper, "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century," Putnam says members of multiracial communities initially tend to expect the worst, distrust neighbors and withdraw.
"Residents of all races tend to 'hunker down,' " Putnam writes. "Trust (even of one's own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer."
If Americans want to live in a tranquil country that's free of racial conflict they would have to change their character and history, another scholar says.
They would have to become like Iceland.
There are no Fergusons there. The United Nations commissioned a report last year that concluded its citizens are among the most contented in the world.
Iceland is so free of conflict that the nation was shocked last year when a police officer shot a man to death. It was the first time police had killed anyone in Iceland in 70 years. Most police in Iceland don't carry guns.
But that happiness comes at a price, says Lisa Corrigan, director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Arkansas, who cites the Iceland comparison. Iceland has one of the most homogeneous populations in the world -- everyone looks the same. And they deliberately keep it that way.
"Iceland is one of the happiest places in the world," Corrigan says.
Corrigan doesn't accept the notion that most white people will welcome the browning of a country that she says was built on white male supremacy.
"It's going to get worse before it gets better," she says, "because power is shifting and white people think that their whiteness is property to be defended."
Assumption No. 2: We'll always have democracy
Some observers have reduced the events in Ferguson to race and class divisions, but there are others who say the protests are ultimately a question about whether democracy can work.
The political makeup of Ferguson has been well-documented. Two-thirds of the city's population is black. The mayor and police chief are white; as are five of the six city council members. There are three blacks out of 53 people in its police department.
Many Americans love the concept of the melting pot, the notion that every ethnic group eventually becomes a part of the country's mainstream. Yet some scholars say you can't have harmony in a multiracial community until hard choices are made about power: what group gets what and how.
Kramer, the Villanova professor, quotes the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass to make his point.
"Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will."
Because people tend not to share power, there will be more Fergusons in America's future: isolated communities ignored by leaders and harassed by heavily armed police forces, says Charles Gallagher, a sociology professor at LaSalle University in Pennsylvania.
The nation won't have a vibrant middle class because of persistent income inequality; it will primarily be the rich and poor, he says. The poor won't vote because they're too disenchanted, and politicians will ignore the concerns of most Americans because wealthy people control politics, Gallagher says.
"I see us looking more and more like Latin America," he says.
The courts could intervene on behalf of racial minorities and the poor. The citizens of Ferguson could, for example pressure their city leaders to place more blacks in their police force.
Yet the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has changed the legal landscape to make such efforts more difficult, Gallagher says. The court has consistently ruled against any diversity efforts hinting at racial preferences.
"This particular court is hostile to the idea of using race in any situation to honestly address ongoing inequalities," Gallagher says.
Racial minorities who feel like they're excluded won't find much empathy from ordinary white Americans either, says Kramer, the Villanova professor. He says many whites operate under this assumption: If they gain, I lose.
That assumption, he says, is played out in Southern states that refuse to accept Obamacare, in the rise of voter ID laws and in the political version of white flight -- where predominantly white communities break away from their counties to incorporate their own cities when too many minorities move into nearby neighborhoods.
He says American democracy was called a "noble experiment" for a reason: People didn't know if democracy, let alone a multiethnic democracy, would work.
Democracy in America could look more like how protesters describe Ferguson: a place where government maintains the façade of a democracy, but doesn't function like one.
"People don't realize that we're still in the experimental stage," Kramer says. "My fear is that we're not going to actually gain true democracy."
Assumption No. 3: It's always about race
Some see another type of frightening scenario for America based on Ferguson. To them, it's premature to say that Darren Wilson, the Ferguson officer who shot Michael Brown to death, was motivated by racism.
They see Ferguson as a stage for the rise of "racial grifters."