White supremacist hate is a growing problem that all Americans ― but white people in particular ― need to face head-on, said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Huffington Post spoke with Beirich last week at Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit, after she took part in a panel discussion titled “Life After Hate: Defeating White Supremacy.”
“White supremacy is an indigenous idea ― it’s from our culture,” Beirich told HuffPost. “I think there’s a reluctance on the part of people to say, ‘I play a role in this. My culture plays a role in this.’”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking white supremacist hate for nearly three decades. Beirich, who heads up its Intelligence Project, has been following white extremist movements since 1999, when she first started attending white supremacist meetings as part of her work.
What she sees today ― from an increase in the number of hate groups, to the white supremacist movement’s emerging young leadership, to White House staff ties to hate groups, to the continuing reluctance of many Americans to even acknowledge the problem ― has her deeply concerned.
Joy-Ann Reid, Heidi Beirich and Brendan Cox
Photo by: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
“If somebody asked me five years ago, ‘What do you think the future for the white supremacist movement is?’ I would have said the grave,” Beirich told HuffPost. “I can’t say that today.”
The number of hate groups in the U.S. has doubled in the last 10 to 15 years, Beirich said during the panel discussion. Last year alone, the number of hate groups rose from 892 to 917, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual hate-tracking report, and around 80 percent of those groups advocate white supremacist or white nationalist beliefs. The number of anti-Muslim groups tripled last year.
Membership on hate group sites has also ballooned, Beirich noted. Leading white supremacist site Stormfront doubled its registered users during the Obama presidency to over 300,000 today.
“Their ranks are growing,” Beirich said.
While it was once a hopeful sign that the most notable names in white supremacism were older people, a younger generation of leaders has emerged in the past five years. These are individuals like Richard Spencer, the 38-year-old face of the so-called alt-right movement, an effort to rebrand the white supremacy movement and appeal to millennials and the middle class generally. They wear “suits and ties and you would think are Hill staffers,” Beirich said.
Richard Spencer is the media-friendly face of the so-called “alt-right” movement.
Photo by: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Perhaps most concerning to Beirich are the new links between the white supremacist movement and upper echelons of the federal government. “People need to know white supremacists are in the White House,” she said.
In particular, Beirich named President Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, who led Breitbart News, a publisher of white nationalist content; Trump aide Sebastian Gorka, who reportedly has ties to a Nazi-aligned group; and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has received awards from and spoken at events of an anti-Muslim hate group listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“They’ve gotten awards from [hate groups]. They believe their ideas,” Beirich said. “They are putting into place policy that’s driven by hate groups ― that has to be stopped.”
In its first 11 weeks, the Trump administration has taken aim at Muslims with two executive orders barring travel from Muslim-majority countries ― which have been blocked by the courts ― and targeted Latinos with an order to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
Speaking of white supremacists, Beirich said, “We’d like to think these people are fringe. But the fact of the matter is the stuff on immigration and on Muslims, this is right out of the white supremacist playbook.”
Photo by: Carlos Barria/Reuters
White supremacy appears along a spectrum ― from the more subtle forms of institutionalized racism such as de facto school segregation, to more overt manifestations in hate crimes. In its most extreme form, it produces domestic terrorism. White people tend to look away from that reality, according to Beirich.
“White supremacists ― white guys basically ― commit way more domestic terrorism than radical Islam inside the U.S.,” Beirich said. “[Yet] there has been a general reluctance in this country to see white people as responsible for terrorism in some sort of organized way.”
Between the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the Orlando, Florida, nightclub shooting in 2016, for instance, more people were killed in the U.S. by right-wing extremists than by Islamic extremists, according to a New America foundation study. There is an attempted domestic terrorism plot by white supremacists in the U.S. approximately every 34 days, Beirich said during last week’s panel discussion.
Dylann Roof said he killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in hopes of starting a race war.
Photo by: Charleston County Sheriff’s Office/Handout via Reuters
“When people talk about white supremacist terrorism, they want to call it a one-off, he’s a crazy person. There’s this list of excuses,” Beirich told HuffPost. “It’s like white people can’t handle the idea that there are devils in our midst.”
Last month, for instance, James Harris Jackson, who is white, murdered Timothy Caughman, who was black. He reportedly told police that he’d traveled to New York City expressly to kill black men. Some news outlets still chose to describe the killer in headlines as “well-dressed” or an “army veteran” (HuffPost included). Protesters that week decried him for what he is: a “white supremacist.”
Such double standards were also apparent when Trump, who tweets often about terror attacks, stayed publicly silent when a white man killed six people at a Quebec City mosque.
“When it’s an Islamic terrorist, [it’s] ‘Muslims, clean up your backyard,’” Beirich said. “Have you ever heard someone say to the white population that we need to root out the white male supremacists in our midst? No, we don’t want to look at ourselves on this front.”
But the history of white supremacist violence runs deep. As Beirich noted, the Ku Klux Klan is often judged to be the first terrorist group in the U.S.
A protester with a Confederate flag drives past other demonstrators in Roseburg, Oregon, in October 2015. President Barack Obama was visiting a week after the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College.
Photo by: Steve Dykes/Getty Images
For white Americans who are alarmed but aren’t sure what to do, Beirich suggests they begin by educating themselves about white supremacism. Learn “the history of white supremacy in this country and its impact,” and also what it advocates for: “a scary, anti-democratic and racist universe.”
“People need to know more about this movement now than they did in the past,” she said. “By not talking about white supremacy, we are not stopping its ideas ― or its personnel from infecting the highest levels of power.”
Journalist Farai Chideya, who has reported on politics and white nationalism for some 25 years, echoed this idea in a recent essay, “The Call to Whiteness.”
“We as Americans have avoided the topic [of white nationalist movements] out of a mix of ignorance, fear, and aversion,” Chideya wrote. “I would argue we can avoid it no longer.”
“It remains very much up to white America to control the baser urges of the call-to-whiteness,” she concluded. “You are not above it, particularly if you have not bothered to learn about it — and especially if you claim it doesn’t exist or doesn’t concern you.”
A makeshift memorial for those killed by a white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015.
Photo by: Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Another critical way to combat extremism is to get out of your own racial, cultural, political bubble.
“Go out and meet people from other cultures. Learn about them,” Beirich said, pointing to “contact theory,” or the well-researched idea that contact with other groups can increase tolerance.
Note that this meeting and learning works in multiple ways. White Americans need to interact with non-white Americans. Liberals would benefit from talking to conservatives, and vice versa. “Engage in civic activities that bring people together,” she urged.
“I know these things sound simple and sound boring,” Beirich said, “but they make a huge difference.”
Consider how taking the time to hear other people affected former white nationalist Derek Black, whom The Washington Post profiled last year. He began to pull away from the movement after being invited to a series of Shabbat dinners by a Jewish student on his college campus. “That’s how most people get out,” Beirich said.
But she added that the work of reaching out to people from different backgrounds or beliefs should not fall on people from marginalized groups.
“It shouldn’t be on the groups facing this,” Beirich said. “It’s on the rest of us.”
Felicia Sanders, who watched as white supremacist Dylann Roof killed her son in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015, sees the same need for people to reach out to people.
“I see so many Caucasians in here ― and we really don’t mean you harm,” said Sanders at Women in the World. “The problem is that we don’t take time to know each other.”
Americans ― and white Americans in particular ― also have a responsibility to make sure their government makes fighting white supremacism a priority, according to Beirich.
“It would be nice if everyday Americans were reminding the government ― whether talking to legislators or state [and] local officials ― about the importance of battling this,” Beirich said. She specifically noted the importance of accurate statistics on hate crimes, which the U.S. government doesn’t track in any comprehensive way.
The bottom line is fairly simple. As Beirich put it, we need to “take responsibility for things screwed up in our own history.”
The United States does not do a good job of tracking incidents of hate and bias. We need your help to create a database of such incidents across the country, so we all know what’s going on. Tell us your story.
By Tamara Lucas Copeland
Not the civil unrest that ensued in neighborhoods in Baltimore, Maryland, but the elevated racial consciousness that emerged within the philanthropic community in Washington, DC.
Philanthropic leaders here wondered if they should support neighboring Baltimore or work to lessen the likelihood of such an event occurring in their own community. It was 2015. Cell phone videos of other police-involved incidents across the country were the backdrop. Everyone knew that it wasn’t just Freddie Gray, but also Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and other African American victims. As foundation leaders began to dissect the situation in Baltimore within the context of these other deaths, topics of race, racism, and bias emerged side-by-side with issues of poor housing, poor schools, and poor health care.
What was new to the conversation, surprisingly, was the overlay of race. This was a significantly different conversation for the members of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers(WRAG), and a bit of a treacherous one. Those who attended the first meeting to discuss a response and possible next steps were comfortable talking about affordable housing, teacher preparation, and gang violence. They had discussed these topics and many others innumerable times, but race itself had been taboo. Now, these philanthropists—black and white, mostly women—were acknowledging that race and racism may have been a major factor in the death of Freddie Gray and the unrest that followed in his city.
The conversation stopped when one participant acknowledged a true lack of knowledge, not just about how racism and bias may have played a part in these events, but about racism and bias—period. The group members didn’t know much about what they were trying to discuss. They had a sense of it, but at no time in their professional lives or academic training had they sought to learn deeply or been taught about race and racism. A quote from John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause and the Independent Sector, was mentioned casually by one participant. It resonated and became the framing for everything that followed:
“The first step in leadership is not action, it’s understanding.”
Seeking Understanding Together
From that comment was born a year-long initiative boldly labeled “Putting Racism on the Table.” Organized and hosted by WRAG, it started as a series of six learning opportunities for philanthropic CEOs and trustees, once a month, for six months. The first three sessions focused on topics: structural racism, white privilege, and implicit bias. The next meeting explored a case study to show how those factors presented in one system (mass incarceration), followed by a review of the racial mosaic of America. The series ended with a session on the role of philanthropy in addressing racism and racial inequity. Each three-hour session began with a lecture by a nationally-known expert on the topic, followed by a conversation, all facilitated by the same person chosen for her adeptness at leading deep conversations on race.
After the learning series, there were five more training sessions: on grantmaking with a racial equity lens, on communicating about race; and a concluding session asking what this philanthropic community would do because of what they had learned over an exceptionally focused year. Participants called the initiative “transformational,” “thought-provoking,” and “eye-opening.”
Exactly what had been revealed? What in the thinking of these philanthropists, individuals committed to addressing the needs of their community, had been transformed? And, how had their approach to grantmaking been altered by their learning experience?
I offer two examples. Together, we learned that mass incarceration is the result of structural racism, white privilege and implicit bias in the criminal justice system. We started with a historical perspective, considering the consequences of slavery, followed by a host of racialized laws and practices that criminalized everyday behaviors and prevented African Americans from obtaining the skills and opportunities to rise, continuing their subservience to the prevailing white, economic system. Combine that historical reality with an understanding that some crimes have been penalized differently (possession of cocaine vs. crack is a classic example), and that prisons have developed into economic engines for small, rural communities, and you may begin to see mass incarceration differently. With this insight, what explains the disproportionate number of African Americans in the U.S. criminal justice system? Are they inherently more criminal or are they victims of a system that has criminalized them?
Or, consider the education system.
We explored how starting as early as preschool, black children, particularly boys, are disciplined for “acting out.” At the same time, black girls are disciplined for being “disrespectful” and perceived as “less innocent” than their white counterparts. Even at this young age, black children are suspended disproportionately from school. Is bias at play? Are teachers perceiving, perhaps unconsciously, normal behavior on the part of black children as being negative, even violent? Studies suggest that this is the case. Unless you have been made aware of this possibility, your focus as a funder remains on “fixing” these boys and girls when the true need is to “fix” the biases and prejudices held by teachers and school administrators.
Making Equity a Grantmaking Priority
Without the formal, structured learning series offered by “Putting Racism on the Table,” the local philanthropic community would not have looked deeply into the historical, psychological, and policy realities that contribute to the social ills they are trying to address. Many participants acknowledged that without this deep dive into structural racism and implicit bias, they would have continued to focus on symptoms without understanding causality. Learning together as a philanthropic community gave the experience a credibility and offered participants a critical support network.
Over the past two years, funders have continued to develop a deeper appreciation for the pervasiveness and impact of racial bias. In WRAG’s annual check-in with members, one year after the series, roughly a third reported that they were applying a racial equity lens to their grantmaking, and thirty percent were seeking additional learning and training opportunities for their staff and leadership around racial equity. Two years after the program, the progress continues: More than half of the funders are talking with their grantees about racial equity. Many more are seeking additional learning opportunities or changing their grantmaking priorities and practices—including, for example, setting aside dedicated funding to support this portfolio—based on a greater understanding of how they can work for racial equity. The importance of the collective learning experience remains, as a third of the WRAG membership are participating in learning and action via WRAG’s Racial Equity Working Group.
This progress now extends beyond the local philanthropy community. Leadership Greater Washington (LGW), a well-respected association of high-level, cross-sector leaders in the region, reached out to WRAG to broaden their understanding of this issue. Together, in 2018, WRAG and LGW hosted another six-month learning initiative. This time called “Expanding the Table for Racial Equity,” it culminated in September in a trip to Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, locales at the core of the civil rights movement. This experience strengthened participants’ understanding of the history of racial struggles and their connection to current racial reality in our country.
Today, in the Greater Washington region, there is a growing group of philanthropists that have been joined by elected officials, nonprofit, and business leaders in recognizing the depth, breadth, and impact of racism. They acknowledge the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow policies, of the unfulfilled promise of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that separate was indeed not equal. They know that as a society, we have not legislated or mandated our way to equity, nor taken the time to understand how we got here. Until that occurs the path to equity remains unclear. But, they have taken important first steps. By putting racism on the table, they have acknowledged a wound and a reality. Now, they are working toward necessary policy change and racial healing.