The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the mostly White world of extremism research, new voices emerge

The white supremacist attack in Buffalo revived criticisms about the lack of diversity among hate trackers

Notes of love and the names of victims are written on Landon Street next to Tops, honoring those attacked in the Tops shooting in Buffalo. (Libby March for The Washington Post)
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Rae Jereza read the manifesto by the alleged Buffalo gunman and felt physically ill.

The racist, conspiratorial ideas behind the deadly attack on Black shoppers in New York last month went on for 180 pages, an overwhelming deluge of hate even for Jereza, a Filipino American academic who studies far-right extremists.

The next morning, with no “room to just breathe” amid the nonstop Buffalo news, Jereza tweeted an unusual appeal that began: “hey folks of color who study white supremacy …”

Jereza’s proposal for a get-together to discuss the attack quickly spread among the small community of people of color who work in the mainly White world of violent extremism studies. They organized a Zoom call where researchers shared the heartbreak of Buffalo but also wider frustrations with a field that often examines racist violence as an academic subject rather than how it’s experienced by its targets — as a personal, ever-present threat.

A vision emerged from the call, participants said, of a support network that also could force a conversation on the field’s lack of diversity, which they see as a factor in the nation’s late awakening to the seriousness of far-right militancy, now the top domestic terrorism concern. They’re floating ideas for new research methodologies, safety practices and language, and for treating the impact on targeted communities with as much importance as the study of perpetrators.

“For now, we’re just happy to have a space where you can talk about how it can hit differently when you’re reading something that spells out your extermination,” said Jereza, who will join American University’s extremism-focused Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (Peril) in the fall as a researcher professor.

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Extremism researchers help shape public understanding of violent threats and advise policymakers on solutions. For example, several of the nation’s top analysts of the far right worked behind the scenes to help lawmakers understand key players and evidence for the congressional hearings on last year’s storming of the U.S. Capitol. The Jan. 6 attack and others since have renewed attention to domestic terrorism, meaning experts are in demand as speakers, TV pundits and podcast guests.

All of that is why researchers of color say it’s a problem that their voices are typically missing or muted. It’s not just a question of justice and representation, but also one of national security. They argue that the narrower the perspective, the narrower the view of the threat.

“It has an impact on how government agencies and how nonprofits and philanthropy then measure the problem,” said Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, an Oregon-based anti-extremism watchdog. Ward, who is Black, is one of a handful of people of color with a leadership position in the hate-monitoring sphere.

For years, researchers of color say, their observations of a hard-right turn were brushed off, dismissed as anecdotal or activist by a national security apparatus that fixated on Islamist extremists. Violent white supremacy received only fleeting attention, tied to particularly bloody attacks such as the 2015 massacre of Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., or the deadly mass shooting of Latinos at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019.

In interviews with researchers of color, common complaints emerged: Labels like “racially motivated violent extremism” that mask the specific anti-Blackness of some attacks. Cyclical, attack-driven attention to a constant threat. A “failure of imagination” to see militant White men, some of them veterans, as a national security risk. Not enough safety protocols for researchers who face retribution for investigating hate groups. Treating far-right ideas as if they’re still fringe and not enmeshed in today’s mainstream conservative agenda.

Several researchers of color said the Buffalo attack encapsulated their frustrations, including the newfound attention on the “great replacement theory,” which imagines the engineered replacement of White people in Western societies. It was the central idea in the 18-year-old suspect’s screed, prompting a round of punditry from the White expert class that many people of color who track hate groups found grating.

“It’s like Christopher Columbus all over again. ‘We’ve discovered great replacement theory,’ as if no one knew about it,” said Damon Hewitt, head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit organization that combats white supremacists through the courts.

Hewitt’s group has been sounding the alarm about replacement theory propaganda for years. In 2019, according to a letter provided for review, the Lawyers Committee wrote to a YouTube executive asking for the removal of a far-right video called “The Great Replacement” that had racked up more than 650,000 views. The letter laid out the history of the racist concept and warned that it was continuing “to gain momentum among white supremacists.”

“The people who are most directly impacted by the harm should have the leading voice in helping to identify what the harms are, what the dangers are, what the contested spaces are, and what solutions would be helpful,” said Hewitt, who is Black.

After the shock fades, fear rises in the aftermath of Buffalo shooting

Researchers of color said they sometimes share their personal observations in meetings only to have White colleagues dismiss their experiences as anecdotal, or at least not as respected as empirical research.

They said their concerns also get branded as activism in ways that wouldn’t happen in other areas of counterterrorism work. When it comes to researching militant Islamist groups such as the Islamic State, analysis is implicitly — and often explicitly — conducted with the goal of weakening the threat.

“Nobody is sitting here leveraging a freedom-of-speech argument before they try to take down ISIS YouTube videos,” said Kinjal Dave, an Indian American doctoral student whose research into white supremacist movements included digging into Ku Klux Klan archives in Mississippi.

In the study of far-right violence, however, there’s a trend toward empathy for White militants, with a disproportionate focus on mental health and “economic anxiety,” according to Dave, Jereza and others.

“Lots of people are disenfranchised in the world and don’t end up shooting up an elementary school or a supermarket,” Jereza said. “It’s in their manifestos — the Buffalo shooter was writing about killing Black people. You can’t chalk that up to, ‘Oh, I just feel so downtrodden.’ ”

Researchers of color say they face structural barriers to entering the field that aren’t factors for most of their White colleagues. One is that personal security restricts how much field work they can do, given the special targeting of minority researchers by white supremacists. Another is the high burnout risk; the violent messages they sift through all day aren’t just hateful rhetoric but direct attacks on their humanity.

Ward, of the Western States Center, said he meets “very few wacky folks of color like me who are going to travel off to rural Oregon or Idaho and attend these meetings.” The reluctance makes sense from a security standpoint, but the result is what Ward calls “a self-replicating system of Whiteness.” He said leaders must get more creative in finding safe ways for people of color to contribute.

“Most of the folks of color who got hired to do this work were either hired to do administrative or operational sides,” Ward said. “But those aren’t really the areas anyone celebrates or funds or pays attention to.”

Think tanks and universities recognize the issue and some have begun to address it, such as by creating peer-support programs and fellowships that serve as pipelines for young researchers of color to build expertise. Researchers from marginalized groups say they appreciate the efforts, but they’re seeking bigger industry reforms than a few extra Black and Brown colleagues.

“What counts as legitimate research, legitimate data, legitimate methods, are coming from this perspective that assumes the researcher is a White cis man,” Jereza said.

One program that’s had success in building a more inclusive research team is American University’s Peril program, where Jereza is headed in the fall. Another up-and-coming Peril researcher is Kesa White, a Black woman whose career stems from her firsthand experience with hate crimes.

As an undergrad in 2017, White was a roommate of Taylor Dumpson, the first Black president of American University’s student government. Within days of Dumpson taking office, bananas strung from nooses were found on campus, along with notes mentioning her historically Black sorority. A neo-Nazi website then targeted Dumpson for a coordinated “troll storm” of online harassment. The incident roiled campus and made national headlines.

White said living in the middle of it — the death threats, the protests, the FBI investigation — opened her eyes to the importance of tracking white supremacist violence.

“That’s actually what got me into the field. It made me realize, wow, these things can pretty much happen to anybody and they still happen today,” she said. “It’s something you would hear about from, like, our grandparents.”

White said she’s already getting a taste of what it means to be a Black woman studying violent movements. After doing a flurry of news interviews about the Buffalo attack, White said, she checked the platforms Gab and Telegram to make sure her name hadn’t landed in far-right channels. Those were okay, she said, but on Twitter she received a threatening reply to a tweet she wrote about having a nice day.

“Some people go back and forth on the spectrum and become part-time experts, seasonal experts,” White said. “I haven’t switched. I’m invested.”

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