Extremism experts and law enforcement alike thought the brutality seen at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 might signal the beginning of the end for white supremacist movements across the U.S. Instead, hate and white supremacy have been allowed to thrive.
Since throngs of white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville for an extremism rally that left one woman dead and dozens of others injured, some participants have faced jail time or lost their jobs. By 2018, even the FBI characterized white supremacist extremism as a just a “medium threat” and said related organizations would fizzle out through “attrition,” leaving only “small cells and lone offenders,” according to leaked documents obtained by The Young Turks.
Yet as certain hate groups dissolved or retreated from public thanks to ongoing efforts by activists and journalists, other white supremacist movements have grown online ― and received a boost from far-right talking heads, news outlets like Fox News, and even the president of the United States. Only now, two years after the rally in Charlottesville, are some people in power starting to acknowledge that domestic terror and white supremacy are problems.
Acknowledging A Problem
White supremacists have carried out numerous attacks across the globe since that deadly weekend in Charlottesville, often with support or endorsement from their peers online. The killing of a gay Jewish college student in January 2018 was cheered on by a violent neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen Division, to which the alleged killer subscribed. And after a white supremacist shot and killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, people on the message board 4chan celebrated by crafting conspiracy theories and hoaxes to further victimize the students.
Domestic extremists, most of whom are white supremacists, killed at least 50 people in the U.S. in 2018 alone, and since Charlottesville have been tied to a long list of massacres, including those in Pittsburgh; Santa Fe, Texas; Poway, California; Tallahassee, Florida; Jeffersontown, Kentucky; and Aztec, New Mexico.
The frequency of white supremacist attacks has forced Congress — or, at least, the Democratic-led House ― to acknowledge the problem by holding committee hearings on hate, white supremacy and domestic terror, but lawmakers have struggled to put any changes in place that can actually combat the problem. The first such hearing didn’t take place until April of this year, and it was derailed by conservatives questioning whether white supremacist violence was even an issue.
Violent racism has long been fueled and tacitly endorsed by U.S. politics. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an unashamed white supremacist, still holds a seat in Congress, for example. And Karen Baynes-Dunning, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Trump’s rhetoric was tied directly to the rise of white nationalist violence.
“This white nationalist fantasy ― that liberal ‘elites’ are conspiring to ‘replace’ white people in our country with immigrants and other people of color ― is the poison that is this movement, with the aid of its champion in the White House, is injecting into our democracy,” Baynes-Dunning said in a statement. “It must be stopped.”
It wasn’t until earlier this month, after a white supremacist shot and killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas ― purportedly with the goal of killing Mexicans, whom he apparently said represented “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” ― that many top conservatives have acknowledged the racism elephant in the room.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) ― who in 2002 spoke in front of a white supremacist group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ― agreed this week that the federal government desperately needs a statute that outlaws domestic terrorism committed by white supremacists. Fox News host Tucker Carlson lost advertisers and the respect of some of his colleagues after he said white supremacy was a “hoax” and “not a real problem.” Trump even attempted to decry white supremacist violence during a news conference after Democrats linked his rhetoric around immigration to the shooting in El Paso, although he has not appeared to change his stance on immigration and went on to compare anti-fascist groups with white supremacy groups.
Seeking A Solution
Identifying and defeating white nationalist organizations is difficult because they are constantly moving targets ― and because there isn’t a federal statute by which to prosecute domestic terrorism.
Identity Evropa, a prominent hate group with strong ties to the Unite the Right rally, rebranded and changed its name after hundreds of thousands of its chat logs were leaked by an independent media organization called Unicorn Riot. The leak exposed members of the armed services and others as white nationalists, and even uncovered a plot by the hate group to keep King in office.
Identity Evropa fell apart as a brand after that leak, but its members ― and anyone who subscribes to racist ideology ― still have easy access to an online network of supporters and collaborators. Message boards like 4chan and its sister site, 8chan, are breeding grounds for radicals, a safe space for white nationalists and their friends to broadcast hate or violence and hide behind anonymity. Social media platforms YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram act as their own petri dishes for violent extremism, despite attempts to crack down on white supremacist ideology.
The most clear-cut proposals for combatting the issue involve governmental classification of domestic terror and white supremacist crime, and constant reassessment of its scope.
The FBI has identified 100 domestic terrorism arrests in 2019 so far, but federal officials have been hesitant to label certain acts as terrorism because there’s no domestic terrorism statute. As a result, some domestic terrorists have been given more leeway than, say, a similar case inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in May introduced the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would require federal agencies to monitor and collect data on the ongoing white supremacist threat. It would also allow them to better assist state and local law enforcement in arresting and prosecuting these cases.
The federal government has been pushing Congress to adopt a domestic terrorism statute, and most Americans say they’re ready for such a law.