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A Black Lives Matter protest, November 2015.

A Black Lives Matter protest, November 2015. (Photo: Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr)

There's a Simple Explanation for Racial Disparities in Terrorism Prosecutions: Racism

Whether authorities classify an act as "terrorist" depends almost entirely on who carries it out, not what they did

Terrorist attacks by white supremacists have been on the rise. But federal law enforcement agencies aren't simply failing to respond. In many cases, they're failing to event count white supremacist attacks as such.

Two recent congressional hearings—one on the rise of domestic terrorism and the other on white supremacy—gave the impression that there was a lack of resources to blame, particularly when it comes to which acts are considered "hate crimes" and which are "terrorist attacks."

Yet throughout the hearing, it felt like the distinction between the two was essentially a matter of who committed the crime, not what the crime was. While violence by Muslims is almost automatically labeled "terrorist," similar violence by politically motivated white supremacists seldom gets the same treatment.

In short, rather than applying justice in a manner that's colorblind, the FBI has done the exact opposite. That's racist, and it's high time we called the FBI out for it.

Rather than acting as bystanders or adjudicating violence rooted in racism, state institutions are often the very ones creating a climate ripe for these abuses to happen in the first place. Instead of simply failing to prosecute white supremacy, all too often the white supremacy is emanating from within the government.

Resources or Racism?

In his opening remarks at the hearing on white supremacy, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) noted that federal agencies were often quick to label violence by Muslims as "terrorist" acts. Yet, he continued:

The FBI did not call the deadly white supremacist attacks and mass shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston or the Tree of Life synagogue domestic terrorism. It did not call the deadly violence that took place in Charlottesville domestic terrorism. But why not?

Surely [the disparity] cannot be because the perpetrators in San Bernardino County, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were non-white Muslims, and that the perpetrator in Orlando, Florida, Omar Mateen, was a non-white Muslim, while the murderers in Charleston, Pittsburgh, and Charlottesville were Dylann Roof, Robert Gregory Bower, and James Alex Fields—all white males.

Raskin's remarks posit a seemingly rhetorical question: What accounts for the difference in the categorization of these crimes? The answer is left relatively open-ended, but there's only one rational explanation for how differentiating between these seemingly similar crimes could be so complicated: racism. And few seem willing to call that out.

The hearing on domestic terrorism highlighted another discrepancy in how time and resources are spent on international terrorism versus domestic terrorism: 80 percent of resources are spent on the former compared to just 20 percent on the latter. In other words, while Americans are more likely to be killed in domestic terror attacks increasingly perpetrated by far-right white supremacists, law enforcement agencies are investing four times as many resources on overseas threats supposedly posed by Muslims.

To others, the cause of the discrepancy is a simple resource issue. For example, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a former prosecutor, stated:

Of course, perspective is important when there were 17,000 murders in the United States in 2017. So we've got a resource issue. We've got state and local and federal resources that we've got to manage, and it is important that we keep in mind and perspective our focus on extremism.

In the hearing on domestic terrorism a week earlier, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) echoed a similar sentiment in trying to explain why data on domestic terrorism has not been made available since 2005:

In terms of what, you know, uh, one of the things I want to do, uh, as a takeaway from this hearing, uh, as I indicated in my opening statement is that, uh, if it's a resource issue for the department that you can't produce this information, then we need to make those resources.

Though the witness in question—Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brad Wiegmann—answered that resources were not the issue, this nevertheless carried over into the following week's hearing on white supremacy.

"I Don't Forgive Him"

This points to a larger issue within the U.S. government: the failure to deal with root causes. Thus, white nationalists are equated with Black individuals who commit anti-police violent crimes—the first rooted in racism and the second, often, in self-defense.

Behind these numbers are the stories of actual victims—such as Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, an act deemed a hate crime rather than a terrorist attack.

Bro was a witness at the white supremacy hearing. When I interviewed her, Bro expressed concern on the lack of clarity regarding the designation of such violence. "To me when a white supremacist, neo-Nazi, KKK [sympathizer] commits hate crimes, they are doing it to incite terror," she said. "And to me that's the very definition of domestic terrorism." (Still, "either way my daughter is dead," she lamented.)

Bro acknowledged the discrepancy in how Muslims are often treated when it comes to these designations. When I asked her what the solution would be, she told me, "I think there needs to be some training as well, but you've got to have the training by people who know what they're doing. And previously we would have thought the FBI would be the trainers, and so I'm left wondering who exactly would be training the FBI then. But you know, they've got to be made to understand that their work is definitely showing a trend in bias."

While many continue to be victimized by violence rooted in racism, regardless of its categorization, many will continue speaking out. This includes Bro, who started a foundation in honor of her daughter Heather. When asked by Heather's father if she wanted to join him in receiving a forgiveness award, she told me, "I don't forgive" the man who killed Heather. "I'm not bitter and I'm not going to live my life in hatred, but I'm not saying I forgive him neither."

Hopefully one day when the dots are connected the problem of white supremacy will be properly situated. Until then, our only choice is to call out racist institutions such as the FBI who have thus far received a carte blanche for—what some of us would call—terror.


© 2021 Foreign Policy In Focus
Maha Hilal

Maha Hilal

Dr. Maha Hilal is a researcher and writer on institutionalized Islamophobia and author of the book Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11.  Her writings have appeared in Vox, Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, Newsweek, Business Insider, and Common Dreams among others.  She is the founding Executive Director of the Muslim Counterpublics Lab, an organizer with Witness Against Torture and a Council member of the School of the Americas Watch. She earned her doctorate in May 2014 from the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University in Washington, D.C.  She received her Master's Degree in Counseling and her Bachelor's Degree in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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