‘We Have Revitalized White Supremacist Thinking in the Mainstream’

Janine Jackson interviewed Heidi Beirich about white supremacist violence for the June 2, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Washington Post: Trump’s quick to tweet about terror and TV, slower on things like the attack in Portland

Washington Post (5/30/17)

Janine Jackson: Some media reported a study a year or so back from the New America Foundation that found that in the years since the September 11th attacks, white supremacists and anti-government radicals had killed nearly twice as many people in the United States as Muslim radicals. Researchers said white supremacist violence was an “ignored threat” that too often goes “under the radar.” But when the Washington Post runs a headline that says, “Trump Is Quick to Tweet About Terror and TV, Slower on Things Like the Attack in Portland,” it isn’t ignoring an act—it’s transforming it.

“Terror” is something with social significance that requires a social response. The “attack in Portland”—in which two people were killed defending two brown-skinned teen girls against a white man yelling at them to get out of his country—is somehow different. It’s tiresome to continue noting media double standards, how a white person who kills and attributes it to racial hatred becomes a “troubled individual”; we wait for police to determine what really provoked the crime. While a Muslim attacker goes straight to page one as the face of evil, emblematic of a danger greater than themselves.

US corporate media resist saying people like Jeremy Joseph Christian are part of something larger, beyond themselves, because that has implications. But he is—so what are they? Heidi Beirich is the leader of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She joins us now by phone from Georgia. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Heidi Beirich.

Heidi Beirich: Thanks for having me.

JJ: The last time we had you on, we talked about how, when then-candidate Donald Trump was slow to disavow the Ku Klux Klan, media called it a “stumble”—as though Trump had misspoken, or was confused about the existence of white supremacy and its role in campaigns like his own. Now Donald Trump is president, and Southern Poverty Law Center, I understand, tracked some 900 attacks in his first ten days [after the election]. Well, no one thinks Trump invented right-wing extremism, but are we seeing, maybe, a new strain of an old disease?

Heidi Beirich

Heidi Beirich: “When you talk about white supremacy, you’ve got to take a hard look at our culture, because it is endemic, and it was here from the day this country started—even before, actually.”

HB: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question but that we are seeing a new strain of an old disease, and it was encouraged, certainly, by the Trump campaign. And the hate incidents that broke out— there’s almost 900 of them, like you said, right after the election—were the result of the rhetoric in the campaign. I don’t think anybody nowadays thinks that you can simply bash a population like Mexicans, as Trump did, or Muslims, and not get a result that ends up in violence in some cases. And so that’s the situation we find ourselves in, and we have revitalized white supremacist groups, white supremacist thinking in the mainstream. It’s really been a horrible turn of events that’s occurred over the last 16 months.

JJ: I know that you are not in the business of quantifying who is more violent than whom. That’s kind of a mug’s game, and more a deflection from a conversation than anything. But you have suggested that white supremacy is an “unusually combustible mental framework.” What do you mean by that?

HB: What we find again and again, in particular with domestic terrorist acts or heinous hate crimes, like what happened in Portland, is that people exposed to white supremacy, people who suck it in, the Dylann Roofs of the world, the Jeremy Christians of the world, often go on to commit violent acts. If you just look at the list of domestic terrorist attacks, let’s say since Timothy McVeigh in 1995, there’s a handful that are the result of people who have radical interpretations of Islam. But the bulk of the incidents involve people who have come to view whites as superior, and who view this country as essentially undergoing a race war, and they make these violent acts, they do these things, in their minds, to save the country, in particular for white people. It’s a very insidious mode of thinking that justifies things like genocide, ethnic cleansing. And so it’s not surprising that we would get violence out of people who come to believe in these ideas.

JJ: Well, if media were really concerned about domestic terror attacks per se, it seems that we would hear the name you just mentioned, Tim McVeigh, that we’d be hearing that night and noon, wouldn’t we, because in fact, that attack was back in 1995, but Tim McVeigh is still sort of a figure in some of these circles.

Jeremy Christian's tribute to Tim McVeigh

The Portland murder suspect’s tribute to the Oklahoma City bomber.

HB: Yeah. Look, Jeremy Christian had a poem or a tribute to McVeigh on his Facebook page. The cell of neo-Nazis which ended up with internecine battles and two men killed that was in Tampa a week and a half ago, they had a picture of McVeigh in their office. And people seem to have forgotten, some sort of amnesia after the 9/11 attacks, which of course were horrific, but up to that point, McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City was the largest loss of life ever in a domestic terrorist incident. Some 180-plus people were killed, including children.

And after 9/11, it was as though—this type of terrorism of course continued to occur, but it was though it didn’t matter, right? All the focus was on the Muslim community, on radical interpretations of Islam, and there was just a reluctance to understand that terrorism comes in more than one form. And of course it’s much easier to point the finger abroad or to a community that you can easily “other” and say is not part of “us”—meaning, in recent years, the Muslim community. When you talk about white supremacy, you’ve got to take a hard look at our culture, because it is endemic, and it was here from the day this country started—even before, actually, with English settlers and so on. And there just seems constantly to be a reluctance to treat that kind of terrorism—and hate crimes, I might add—as seriously as what is influenced by groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda.

JJ: Well, let me ask you: State officials, and the media following their lead, were hesitant to describe massacres in Rwanda as genocide, partly because such terms track national interest, so-called, who’s a friend and who’s an enemy, and partly because the term carried implications, it carried responsibilities, and it called for action. I wonder, what would it mean to recognize, not that white hate violence happens—you know, that moment of discovery should be long over—what would it mean to recognize it as terroristic? What would be the next phase after we see it?

HB: If people were to come to that position, government officials in particular, right, then it becomes a policy problem, and one that needs to be addressed. Then we might come to think that more resources should be put at combating this kind of terrorism, and not all the focus always be on the Muslim community.

We would probably strengthen our hate crime laws, which are just all over the map. There are large classes of people, depending on what state you’re in, that are not protected. My home state of Alabama, the LGBT community has no protections. There’s no mandatory reporting.

In fact, the Department of Justice itself says the number of hate crimes—this is based on survey data—is about 250,000 a year in the US, and the FBI only reports like 5,000. That gap right there, between 250,000 and 5,000, shows you how little we seem to care about this issue. And, you know, when it comes to the Trump administration, they can barely get it out of their mouths to condemn these acts of violence.

JJ: And, of course, it isn’t just what Trump is not saying, and what signals he’s sending with that. There is also, as you’ve just noted, resource expenditures. In that light, I wonder if you could explain what I understand is happening with the Countering Violent Extremism program. It seems to reflect this White House’s priorities.

HB: Well, it absolutely does. In the latter years of the Obama administration, they changed Countering Violent Extremism programs, which are basically—a lot of it’s school counseling, children’s programs, things that can help keep people from falling into the hands of extremists.

And they changed these programs to not just focus on the Muslim community, but to also support groups that were trying to get people out of white supremacy. So there were a bunch of grants awarded, late in the Obama administration, to do this work, but the checks hadn’t been signed.

But then, after Trump’s win, it was crickets. And our understanding, from leaked reports, is that in Trump’s view, it should be countering violent Islam, not countering violent extremism. And it shows, once again, the Trump administration doesn’t seem to care about hate crimes against people of color, but they also seem to ridiculously think that terrorism can’t have a white face, right, that it’s all coming from ISIS and whatnot, and it’s just false. So at this point we’re going to have policies put in place that act like McVeigh didn’t exist.

JJ: I know that you don’t support censorship as the way forward. I wonder, what are some of the positive actions that you see when you look around that seem to you useful—not just that make us feel better, and I’m not opposed to feeling better, but that seem to you useful in resisting, or in speaking back to white supremacist violence?

HB: Sure. Well, I think in Portland, for example, there was a really positive rally with some 600 people that involved an Islamic center there, where people in the city said, we do not support this guy, right, and the kind of hate violence we’ve just seen. We’re seeing things like that across the country. We also have a lot of mayors and states taking positive moves on creating hate crimes units, taking hate crime issues more seriously, investing in that, creating welcoming communities. These things are really, really important. And although the Trump administration might not care about this, down the road, somebody will.

And so that’s sort of the best of America. And hopefully sometime shortly, we’ll have a different election outcome, and that will be allowed to flourish, not just at the state and local level, but for the whole country.

JJ: And any thoughts on media? When I was booking you, I said I knew you’d be very busy, and I’m sorry for that, in a way. I think that US reporters should have a deep bench right now on white supremacist violence. It shouldn’t be a concept that sort of springs up anew, and then is forced on them and they need to look into it. It really is, of course, as a story, something that could keep a journalist busy every day.

HB: Sure. Well, I have to say, given the state of the media, where there’s been high turnover in newsrooms and new people coming in, that a lot of folks don’t really have this more historical perspective on white supremacy, let alone to the 1990s. But we’ve got to remember, it’s only the mid ‘60s when we dismantled the legal framework that kept segregation, Jim Crow and black oppression in place. So we are not that far from having written in law that black people should be treated worse than white people.

And so I think that nowadays, if you’re involved in covering American politics, you have got to know the history of the civil rights movement, and something about American history, and you need to know the violence that has been coming out of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and others inspired by hate ideas, almost since the founding of the country to today, and it’s sort of a fundamental thing to know about.

I am somewhat happy, because I’ve seen in certain newsrooms more specialization on these issues, largely in response to the Trump campaign, because they keep coming up, and because there’s so much domestic terrorism, but we could use more expertise in the media ranks about these issues.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Heidi Beirich of Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which publishes the Intelligence Report and the Hatewatch blog. Find them online at SPLCenter.org. Heidi Beirich, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

HB: Thanks for having me.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.