To the Editor:
On January 6th, a group of emboldened white supremacists did not hesitate to storm the U.S. Capitol. Recently, Congress has held hearings on the attempted coup with an eye towards understanding and preventing future attacks. But white supremacist violence did not begin or end on January 6th, and it’s time that Congress broadens the conversation about addressing this crisis.
In New Jersey specifically, the spread of white supremacy has become so alarming that the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness issued a threat assessment of white supremacist extremism that increased the threat level in New Jersey from “moderate” to “high.” This is higher than the threat levels of both al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Failing to take direct action on domestic white supremacist terrorism has been one of our biggest sins as a nation, and ultimately our failure to directly combat white supremacy has caused deep harm to people of color, most recently evidenced by the attacks in Atlanta.
The ideological framework of white supremacy has plagued this nation since Indigenous land was snatched and Black people were relegated to mere partial humanity under the Constitution. Since then, this ideology has infested every corner of our nation. U.S. courtrooms have been used as a mechanism to allow white supremacy to survive, and legislative bodies have passed laws to aid white supremacists in their quest for total racial dominance.
Even with these past missteps, Congress can and should take direct action to combat white supremacist terrorism, without running the risk of targeting groups of anti-racists and other progressive activists like the FBI has done in the past.
Currently, we know that white supremacist extremists are often radicalized and organize as hate groups in online spaces. Congress can create a dedicated unit for governmental strategic communications to increase counter-messaging and counter-narratives online. The U.S. Department of State’s Center for Strategic Counter Communications, which creates counter messages to online ISIS recruitment efforts, provides a valuable precedent.
But much of the work to create an anti-racist society must start on the interpersonal and grassroots levels, where we can begin addressing the roots of extremism. Congress should also fund grants for non-governmental organizations that have set out to interrupt and reverse the spread of racist ideology in the United States, such as anti-racist re-education programs for those who have recently been separated from white supremacist groups or white youth at risk of joining white extremist organizations.
While all of the above measures will be critical in working towards creating an anti-racist country, we most of all need to get serious around questions of enforcement when it comes to stopping the spread of white supremacist violence. An undertaking of this proportion will require the Supreme Court to relitigate their previous assertion that racist speech--even if it leads to racially motivated violence--should be protected under the First Amendment.
One issue with enforcing real consequences to white supremacist terrorism is the difficulty of punishing racist ideology, given that our courts have allowed white extremist speech to be protected under the First Amendment. In the early 90s, for example, the Supreme Court struck down an ordinance in St. Paul, Minnesota ruling that the government cannot punish those who “communicate messages of racial . . . intolerance.”
However, regulation of this type of speech in similarly situated countries that have robust free speech laws is hardly uncommon. For example, in Germany companies are required to take down hate speech within 24 hours and in South Africa, hate speech does not qualify as protected under their constitution. For the United States to truly combat white supremacy, we’ll need to look to these precedents, not just our own erroneous court decisions.
Attempting to facilitate enforcement against violent acts fueled by white supremacy by lumping it in with other forms of terrorism is simply going to lead to measures that are too broad and place anti-racist activists at risk under more conservative leadership. It’s time that we stop being so squeamish towards enacting measures that will directly lead to the elimination of white supremacist ideology and the violence it ignites.
A Montclair, NJ native, Imani R. Oakley is a progressive political organizer who has worked in politics on the federal, state, and grassroots levels. Opinions expressed are those of the author.