Inclusive democracy, America’s greatest challenge and achievement, is currently in the crosshairs of racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia—and the intersection of these toxic belief systems is fueling the rise of hate violence and white nationalism in the United States and around the world. Having moved from the fringes of society to the mainstream, these ideologies now frame national narratives and influence electoral outcomes.
In 2019, the third year of the Trump presidency, data gathered by the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) documents a continued and rising threat to inclusive democracy: a surging white nationalist movement that has been linked to a series of racist and antisemitic terror attacks and has coincided with an increase in hate crime. The number of white nationalist groups rose for the second straight year, a 55 percent increase since 2017, when Trump’s campaign energized white nationalists who saw in him an avatar of their grievances and their anxiety over the country’s demographic changes. The numbers are a barometer, though an imperfect one, of the size and growth of the movement.
A series of terror attacks in the United States and abroad—including the mass killings in El Paso, Texas, and New Zealand—have led federal authorities to put more focus on combating terrorism that stems from the movement. FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Judiciary Committee in early February that the agency had upgraded its assessment of the threat posed by racially motivated extremists to a “national threat priority.” His remarks amplified his message from November, when he told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that a majority of domestic terror attacks are “fueled by some type of white supremacy.”
Wray is right to be alarmed. White nationalism poses a serious threat to national security and pluralistic democracy. It’s a virulent and profoundly undemocratic ideology that infects our political system with hate, fear and resentment. And, as we’ve seen in recent years, the threat of violence is very real. In fact, there’s a growing sector of white supremacists, calling themselves “accelerationists,” who believe mass violence is necessary to bring about the collapse of our pluralistic society.
With heightened attention to the movement since the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, internal struggles have surfaced. Some leaders have been kicked off their social media platforms and other internet services they relied on to raise money, recruit new members, and spread racist propaganda. The organization of one of the country’s most recognizable white nationalists, Richard Spencer, appears to have gone dormant.
Despite these developments, the white nationalist movement remains the most mobilized threat from the American radical right. It is not, however, the only one tearing the social fabric of inclusive democracy. Hundreds of hate groups are operating in America, targeting immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ people, Muslims, Jews, Blacks and other people of color.
The alarming rise of hate violence in our communities and bigoted rhetoric within mainstream political discourse has thus far failed to prompt a proportionate response from community leaders and political officials. We are no more prepared for a backlash of hate violence that could surround the coming 2020 election than we were in 2016.
It is time to move beyond the illusion that hate violence and extremism is merely a criminal crisis in America. It is also a political crisis. It has to be engaged politically. Just as there was a national movement against racial segregation in the 1960s, there now needs to be a national movement against hate violence in America.
What would such a movement against organized bigotry look like?
It should include appropriate action on the federal level, of course, as has now begun with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.
A full defense of inclusive democracy also requires local responses by city, county and state governments; litigation strategies that hold hate groups accountable for the harm they cause; internet companies that enforce their own policies restricting the ability of hate groups to operate online; and support for individuals and organizations willing to courageously reach out, neighbor to neighbor, to stand up for each other’s civil and human rights.
Promising steps are already taking place across the country. In the Pacific Northwest, city councils and county commissions in five municipalities have passed resolutions condemning white nationalist activity and pledging support for all vulnerable residents. More than 8,000 educators, representing every state and a number of other countries, have begun using a toolkit to help them counter white nationalist recruitment in middle and high schools. Dozens of congregations, civic groups and local leaders have come together to form their own community-based responses to organized bigotry.
As detailed in this report’s review of the Year in Technology, there is also progress—though far too slow—in response to the proliferation of hate on the internet. Increased pressure has to be brought to bear on social media platforms to stop prioritizing profit over the safety of our communities and inclusive democracy. Prioritizing profit at all costs continues to have real and tragic results, not only in the United States but internationally.
Through community pressure on elected leaders, media organizations and corporate interests, a broad-based response can be mobilized. Together, we can demand and construct better data collection, improved law enforcement training, stronger prosecutorial and civil litigation strategies, laws that keep guns away from those with violent intent, and upstream interventions that teach tolerance and rebuild community trust.
By educating, training and assisting civil society to effectively respond to social movements that exploit bigotry and intolerance, we can limit the impact of white nationalism, hate violence and authoritarian practices on inclusive democracy. The data on hate groups and extremism provided by the SPLC’s Intelligence Project is an essential tool in that effort.