Janine Jackson interviewed Heidi Beirich on white supremacy for the March 4, 2016, CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: White supremacy in its various strains is among the most significant, least discussed phenomena in US media discourse. A news report may note that a pundit stated that black people are lazier and more violent than other people, and urged public policies premised on that idea, or that a candidate’s followers singled out African-Americans or Latinos to harass or assault, and that these things are concerning.
What we don’t often hear is that these ideas and actions are associated with a particular worldview that has a history that we can talk about. So while ample evidence of white supremacist thinking and behavior exists, anyone using the term still somehow sounds outlandish or doctrinaire. We don’t have white supremacists; we just have some angry people with a few bad ideas.
Well, for decades the Southern Poverty Law Center has been documenting the reality that some seem to think we can ignore into nonexistence. They monitor the activities of domestic hate groups and other extremists, including the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi movement and others. Heidi Beirich is director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She joins us now by phone from Montgomery, Alabama. Welcome to CounterSpin, Heidi Beirich.
Heidi Beirich: Thanks for having me.
JJ: Let’s talk a little bit about the landscape that your work maps. Hearing reports of things like white high school basketball fans chanting “Trump, Trump,” at their largely Latino opponents is giving some people the idea that white supremacy is either increasing or more visible. But I believe I’ve heard it said that there’s actually been a decrease in organized hate groups per se. Is that so, and if so, what’s taking their place? Because it sure feels like hate is in the air.
HB: Sure. Well, there’s a couple things going on at once. One, the number of hate groups in the United States today is definitely higher than it was, for example, in 2000. We have more like almost a thousand groups today, back then about 600. So organized white supremacy is growing.
But then there’s the activity on the internet of extremists, which has become particularly visible in this campaign season, where people who are emboldened, in particular by the Trump candidacy, have started making racist statements and engaging in racist activities in a much more forward way than prior to when this campaign really started heating up. So you have these two things going on: more internet activity with racists, more hate groups, and more visible hate group activity.
JJ: We want media to take white supremacy seriously. I don’t think it’s smart or good journalism to dismiss people as humorous or negligible or just a series of individual cranks. But at the same time, we’re wary of seeing certain ideas countenanced, seeing them entertained as though they were just what some people think, like preferring apples to oranges. There has to be a way to thread that needle, and for media to talk seriously about these ideas and their impact on society. What do you make of the amount and the quality of coverage that these issues get?
HB: Oftentimes when I talk to journalists, they have this inclination to not want to write about hate groups, hate ideology, either because they think it’s going to draw attention to these groups that’s undeserved, make them seem perhaps larger than they are, have more impact. You know, in general I reject that way of thinking. I think that we actually have to talk about these organizations and these beliefs seriously, and whenever they come up. And the reason is this: The United States has a horrific history of white supremacy, white violence, domestic terrorism, predicated on these beliefs. I mean, people seem to forget that it’s only in the mid ’60s that black folks in the United States were accorded the same rights as white people.
And so if you aren’t talking about white supremacy, you’re ignoring one of the main facets of American society. And I have to say that over the last few weeks, with the Trump/Klan controversy, these various incidents at Trump rallies—I mean, you realize that this is still a potent, driving factor in United States politics and society. It needs to be talked about, and talked about often.
JJ: When FAIR was doing work about a kind of hate radio host named Bob Grant here in New York, who referred repeatedly to African-Americans as “subhuman,” as “savages,” part of the problem was that we couldn’t get media to use actual quotes from him. They would just describe him as a curmudgeon, you know, or as cranky. And it was almost as though including his actual quotes was too inflammatory. It seems as though—and you’re getting at this—we don’t want to identify these ideas, because somehow that seems to be giving them oxygen, as though if we ignored them they would go away.
HB: Yeah. Well, look, they don’t go away. I mean, we are seeing controversies today that people probably thought were to put bed when the Dixiecrats disappeared from the scene, and segregation. So they don’t go away; they have to be addressed, they have to be explained, they have to be condemned. The media shouldn’t think that talking about these issues is giving them oxygen. It’s not; it’s confronting the horrors of this thinking. And making clear that people understand what this is about, that America has this kind of a history, and that these ideas have to be effectively channeled and explained for what they are.
JJ: Right. Well, we don’t want to police speech, of course. And I wonder how you think we might go about balancing our civil liberties concerns with, at the same time, a recognition that, for example, there can be a website that’s saying, you know, “If you as a white person take your survival and your heritage seriously, well, there are certain people who it would be better if they didn’t exist.” You know, we want to see those connections between ideas and actions made, but at the same time, we want to champion the free flow of information. How do you walk that line?
HB: Sure. And this is an issue that comes up a lot in our work. Look, you know, we are not about violating anybody’s First Amendment rights. Our role at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I think really for all good citizens, is to counter hate speech with speech. In other words, use our First Amendment rights, just as a hate group might be exercising it by putting out an idea of white genocide or something like that. But to use our First Amendment rights to point out what’s wrong about that thinking, where that kind of thinking can lead, and once again, point out what the history of racial violence has been like in this country. That’s what needs to happen. So I encourage people to speak out about these ideas, to counter these ideas. That is very, very important to reducing their power.
JJ: I try not to do media criticism by counterfactual, but I do believe that if a young black man had gone into a white church and murdered nine people and said that it was because they were white and that he hoped to spark a race war, I sort of believe that we would still be talking about the ideas that that killer had pointed to as his motivation, and how we should address those ideas as a society. I wonder, do you think that we missed, socially, an opportunity that the Charleston murders offered? What happened there?
HB: Yeah. Look, I think that there is a form of white privilege when it comes to killers like Dylann Roof, right, the white shooter in Charleston. I would say this is definitely the case with the militia folks who occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Right? It doesn’t seem like their crimes are treated with the severity or level that they would if we were to say that those folks that were holed up in Burns, Oregon, for example, were Muslim. Right? Or African-American. We would be having a much different conversation.
There are other small things related to white supremacist killers and other radical right killers that are odd as well. We had the Planned Parenthood shooting, Robert Dear, and the Dylann Roof case, where law enforcement didn’t drag those people out in handcuffs or shoot into these places. What they did is in both cases, they took the two of them out for hamburgers after the crimes. I just don’t think that would happen if it was a person of color.
JJ: And it’s hard for people to see those disparities and not want to, minimally, have a conversation that names them, that doesn’t sort of take each incident as a new occurrence and unique and special, but that says we can recognize a pattern of actions here.
Well, let me move you, in a way, from media. At an event last fall that I saw on C-SPAN, you were very patiently and persistently trying to ask an assistant attorney general for National Security how the government was preparing to address the expected increase in white supremacist violence along with 2040 and whites becoming a statistical minority. His responses kept seeming to go back to examples about Islamic extremists. We know that media focus much more on Islamist violence than domestic right-wing violence. But I wonder if, in general, you feel that the government’s anti-terrorism mechanisms—are they pointed in the right direction, no pun intended?
HB: Sure. Well, the fact of the matter is that just about as many people, tragically, have been killed in the United States—actually, it’s slightly more—by white supremacists or anti-government-motivated people, right, domestic terrorists, as by Islamic extremists. And we have been hypercritical of both the Bush administration and then the Obama administration for only focusing on Islamic terrorism. And we’ve been basically on a campaign since 2009 to pressure the federal government to take both types of terrorism seriously. Right? It’s not an issue of do one or the other, it’s an issue of “and,” and that’s kind of what I was saying to Assistant Attorney John Carlin in that event that you’re talking about.
The federal government has gotten much better about the distribution of resources to both types of terrorism, but it took a long time to make them right that ship, and it’s kind of astounding. And I would say, once again, it’s kind of a weird form of white privilege, or perhaps denial on the [part of the] majority. It’s like it’s much easier to think, oh, that terrible person from a foreign land came here and did something. Right? It’s not native [to] America, we didn’t create it. And then this reluctance to admit that white supremacy is part of our history, it is native to us, and it creates massive violence. And it seems to be very hard for people to accept that, both in the federal government and in general. Media coverage sometimes reflects this, I think.
JJ: The work of the Southern Poverty Law Center is being featured now in a series called Hate in America, which debuted February 29 on Investigation Discovery. And folks can see, I think, whole episodes at some point online at InvestigationDiscovery.com. Tell us about that series, and what you hope folks may take away from it.
HB: Sure. Discovery has done three hour-long segments looking at the issues basically around hate in America, its nature, its relationship to domestic terrorism, the issue of severe hate crimes. They’re using the Southern Poverty Law Center as a guide to some of that work, and they talk to victims of this kind of violence and the just horrific pain that they go through, whether the shooting was April 2014 at a Jewish community center in Kansas or it was Charleston this past summer.
And the point that they’re trying to make, and I think they do a very nice job of it, is we have got to get real about the fact that hate crimes, hate violence, hate-motivated terrorism, is a serious problem in this country, and we need to talk about it. And it’s something that in general we’ve been shying away from, even though these incidents keep coming and coming and coming. You know, our research shows that we’ve had a lone-wolf terrorist attack every 34 days in the United States for the last few years. That’s serious.
JJ: Well, one of the cases that is referred to in the series has been referred to as “the last lynching in America,” and I would be very interested to hear people guess what year they think the last lynching in America took place. I think even when media talk about this, there is an insistence that these strains of thought, these ideas, are relics, that they are historical, and we don’t want to bring them into the present day.
The last lynching, of course, was 1981, you can tell us about that, but also just tell us about the importance of what’s the difference between talking about white supremacy in our history and talking about white supremacy in our present?
HB: Well, that’s right. Michael Donald was lynched in Mobile in ‘81, on a public street by Klansmen. Right? Most people would think that the last lynching maybe happened in the ‘60s or something. They would have no idea—or maybe even further back in history.
But the fact of the matter is that the kinds of hate crimes that occurred like the one in Charleston this summer, that did not involve a noose. Right? But it’s the same as a lynching. The people who were praying in that church were killed simply because they were black, by someone who was an avid reader of white supremacist websites, and came to believe that propaganda, propaganda that is ancient in our country, in particular about the idea that somehow black men are more criminal than whites, and sucking those ideas in led to that violence. So although a gun was used by Dylann Roof in Charleston, that kind of violence, just like the horror that Michael Donald went through, is happening all the time, and we’ve got to address it.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: Part of the reason that we see reticence, I think, on the part of media to explore the connections and to take white supremacy seriously as a body of ideas, as an ideology that has influence, has to do with how far up it goes and how deep the tendrils of it go.
In particular, in the case of Dylann Roof in Charleston, Dylann Roof acknowledged that he had had his life changed by discovering the website of something called the Council of Conservative Citizens. And their statement in the wake of the Charleston killings I thought was very eerie, and it always struck me that media did not do very much with it. The Council of Conservative Citizens, who Roof had cited as kind of a motivational force, said that while they unequivocally condemned his actions, “they do not detract in the slightest from the legitimacy of some of the positions he has expressed. Ignoring legitimate grievances is dangerous.” That seems to me something to be taken extremely seriously.
HB: Absolutely. Well, first of all, it was enough for their propaganda to radicalize Dylann Roof. Secondly, the Council of Conservative Citizens, which is a hate group today, exists today, had politicians attending their meetings on a regular basis well into the 2000s. So there’s that. I mean, this is not like some disconnected little group.
And perhaps more importantly, when we’re talking about the history of the United States, the Council of Conservative Citizens was built on the mailing lists of the White Citizens Councils, the segregationist organizations that existed all across the South during the ‘60s and the ‘50s.
So we’ve got a direct link to our past. We have a killer who’s motivated by propaganda that is ancient, actually, in American history, and constantly pushed by white supremacists. And that killing happened this past summer. So you see that this throughline of domestic terrorism related to white supremacist thinking is one that is still alive and well in the United States.
JJ: But while we’re calling on media and everyone to take it seriously, that doesn’t mean to lack hope about it. And I understand that through this Hate in America series, but also through the work you do, I mean, you couldn’t do it if you didn’t see it as something that was fighting toward the light. Right?
HB: Absolutely. I mean, look, American history also shows us that the world has in general become less racist, by a large amount, since the 1960s. Right? We still have a lot of racial issues to deal with, but 40 million white Americans voted for an African-American for president, for example.
What these people fundamentally represent is a backlash to a future that will be multicultural, multiethnic, diverse and so on. So in general, I think of this as, you kind of have to fight back the backlash, and terrible things can come from that, but for the most part, the United States is probably in the best place it’s ever been in terms of racial relationships.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center. You can find their work online at SPLCenter.org, and you can check out Hate in America at InvestigationDiscovery.com. Heidi Beirich, thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
HB: Thanks for having me.