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More Government Power Is the Wrong Way to Fight White Supremacy

History shows that the expansion of the American security state never benefits racial and religious minorities.

Law enforcement agents respond to the El Paso shooting on August 3. (Joel Angel Juarez/AFP/Getty)

In June, Buzzfeed published the findings of the Plain View Project, a systematic investigation into white supremacist sympathies among police officers nationwide. The project searched the Facebook pages of officers in a dozen cities, including Phoenix, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Dallas. It turned up an extraordinary—if not exactly startling—amount of posts with violently racist imagery, language, and memes. In Philadelphia, 327 officers—of 1,073 who could be identified on Facebook—had posted white supremacist content, more than a third of whom had one or more federal civil rights lawsuits filed against them. At least 64 of the officers were in leadership roles. Almost all of those identified have remained on the force since the investigation.

I’ve thought of these numbers in recent days, as liberals and leftists have demanded more rigorous investigation and severe prosecution of white supremacist terrorism. In the wake of the massacre in El Paso, allegedly committed by a white man in revenge for what he called a “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” countless op-eds and tweets implored federal and local law enforcement to treat such terrorism with the same severity it has historically treated the threat of Muslim extremists. Many on the left thus applauded when the FBI announced domestic terrorism investigations into both the El Paso and Gilroy shootings.

These demands were understandable. Amid such tragedy, there is always a desire for cathartic action, for a reparatory response commensurate with the degree of the injury. Even people who typically mistrust the violent deputies of state power fantasize that the state might, for once, deploy them for the purpose of righting a catastrophic wrong. Moreover, America is a philosophically retributivist society. The worst deeds must be met with the worst punishments, and the worst word we have for an act of violence—the deed for which the worst punishments are reserved—is “terrorism.”

But there is a contradiction at the heart of this call for more counterterrorism. If you believe, as I do, that America under-polices white racist violence for endemic reasons—namely the association of whiteness and innocence in the American imagination, the white supremacist sympathies of U.S. law enforcement, and the white supremacist foundations of the republic itself—it is both incoherent and wrong-headed to advocate further empowering the security state to combat white terrorism.

American policing is a project in many ways synonymous with a project of racial control. Demanding that same apparatus abandon its raison d’être in favor of combatting its own authorizing ideologies is nonsensical. In short, white supremacist police cannot be expected to police white supremacy. But more importantly, there has never been an expansion of the investigatory or punitive power of the American security state which has redounded to the benefit of racial and religious minorities. Quite the opposite. The more powerful law enforcement becomes, the easier it is, as a legal and statutory matter, for investigators to peer into the lives of marginalized people, the more severe the punishments meted for their perceived crimes, and the more abuses they will suffer at the hands of law enforcement. There is no reason to believe that the expansion of the powers of the FBI to investigate and charge domestic terror cases would be used only or primarily to target white terrorists.

From the perspective of justice, there are two distinct, albeit related problems with the discourse and legal architecture of “counterterrorism.” The first is that the term “terrorist” is prejudicially applied (until recently) almost exclusively to designate violence committed by racial and religious minorities. It is from this blatant disparity that the demand to “call him a terrorist!” arises. But the second problem is that our government preemptively detains, surveils, and extra-judicially murders those people we call “terrorists.” The term authorizes a state of legal exception—an alternative juridical landscape in which the normal rules of investigative and punitive procedure need not apply.

“Terrorism” was invoked in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks so the state could ignore the constitutional rights of Muslims at home and the human rights of Muslims abroad, to invent (from whole cloth) a new national security paradigm, and to engage in a globe-spanning ritual act of vengeance against the people our government held responsible for that awful day. This new security apparatus was not designed to combat white domestic terrorism. There is no set of knobs within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), one labeled “Islamic terror” and the other “white nationalism,” which can be adjusted—turn one up, the other down—to fit the needs of the moment. There’s only one knob, and when it gets turned up, the freedom of minorities tends to be curtailed.

Finally, the FBI already has extraordinary resources to investigate and prosecute white supremacist violence. As civil liberties expert Kade Crockford has observed, the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2008 granted itself extraordinary latitude to investigate pretty much anyone for any reason at all—including first amendment activity, so long as protected speech is not the “sole” basis for initiating an assessment. That the FBI underutilizes this extreme discretion to target white supremacists is not a matter of permission but a matter of priority and emphasis.

Former Department of Justice officials, the FBI Agents Association, and various members of Congress have called recently for a new law to make “domestic terrorism” a federal crime. As it is, domestic terrorism has a definition under federal law—violence or threats intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population—but is not associated with any specific sanctions. Instead, domestic terrorists are charged with other existing crimes, such as murder, conspiracy, and hate crimes. FBI policy instructs agents to open a parallel “domestic terrorism” inquiry whenever a hate crime suspect “has a nexus to any type of white supremacist extremist group.” However, the FBI’s tendency is to let state and local law enforcement take the lead on investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. The trouble is, many states have no hate crime laws on the books. Only 10 percent of state and local law enforcement agencies report any hate crime prosecutions. The effect of the DOJ’s federalist hate crime policy, the Brennan Center for Justice’s Michael German has found, is an “enormous gap between the number of crimes that victims are reporting and those that receive law enforcement attention.”

No new law is needed for the existing security apparatus to more thoroughly investigate and charge white supremacist and nationalist terrorists. What is needed is a security apparatus that isn’t built on a foundation of white supremacy—and achieving that end is not at all helped by calls for more criminal sanctions for the crime of “terrorism,” nor more money allocated to DHS. This demand is not unconnected to demands for a wholesale reckoning with American racial history, reparations, and the redistribution of economic and political power presently hoarded by wealthy whites; it’s all part of the society-wide project of deconstructing the white supremacist foundations of our country. Until we make substantial progress there, any call for more counterterrorism will only empower the violent capacities of a state committed to the preservation of white racial rule.