Confronting White Supremacist Violence: An Effective and Inclusive Path Forward
“Confronting White Supremacist Violence: An Effective and Inclusive Path Forward,” a policy paper by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, details concerns about the Biden administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, sets forth requests for clarification, and contains recommendations for additional steps that the administration should take to protect civil rights and civil liberties as part of a robust response to white supremacist violence.
Our nation’s strength lies in its rich diversity and its embrace of people of all races and genders, regardless of where they come from, how they worship, or whom they love. In recent years, violent white supremacists have attacked this diversity, carrying out attacks across the country — from Charleston, South Carolina, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to El Paso, Texas, to Charlottesville, Virginia, to Buffalo, New York. These assaults are tragic reminders that our nation’s long history of racial terror endures. In 2020, the country saw the highest number of reported hate crimes since the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The key role played by violent white supremacist groups in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol only underscores the seriousness of the threat they pose.
The United States has in place laws and authorities necessary to investigate and prosecute white supremacist violence, including as hate crimes and domestic terrorism. The U.S. Code has more than 50 laws that can be used to prosecute acts that meet the definition of domestic terrorism under the USA PATRIOT Act. There are at least six federal statutes that can be used to prosecute bias-motivated crimes committed by white supremacists. But for too long, the federal government has failed to adequately prioritize and resource these types of investigations and prosecutions. Indeed, it has even failed to collect data on the extent of white supremacist violence in the country, mostly relying on voluntary reporting by state and local authorities who may not have the capacity or incentives to accurately track this information.
In this context, the Brennan Center for Justice and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights welcome the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing white supremacist violence, as reflected in the first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism (DT Strategy) issued in 2021 by the White House. The strategy includes important elements, such as improving the tracking of domestic terrorism cases and recognizing the need to protect civil rights and civil liberties in combating this threat. However, it also extends a counterterrorism framework that has afforded immense discretion and authority to federal agents regarding whom to surveil and investigate. This discretion, and an expansive view of what counts as “terrorism,” has resulted in the targeting of communities of color and political dissent. Indeed, the counterterrorism framework incorporated into the strategy often obscures the threat of white supremacist violence, hiding it under categories such as “racially motivated violent extremism,” which also covers movements that have been conjured up by the FBI such as those involving people motivated by “racism or injustice in American society, [or] the desire for a separate black homeland.”
This doubling down on a national security framework has already caused damage to so many people in America, including many of the same communities who are the targets of white supremacist violence. Instead, the Biden administration should take an inclusive and more effective approach that:
- Accounts for and prosecutes white supremacist violence using the laws already on the books;
- Implements tangible civil rights and civil liberties safeguards to constrain the use of counterterrorism authorities against protestors and communities of color; and
- Does not further expand the footprint and authority of national security agencies.
This paper details concerns about the DT Strategy, sets forth requests for clarification, and contains recommendations for additional steps that the administration should take to protect civil rights and civil liberties as part of a robust response to white supremacist violence.