The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At a hearing, an expert said the FBI should focus on the rise of white nationalism, not ‘black identity extremists’

Tanya Faison of Black Lives Matter talks at a demonstration outside the Sacramento Police Department. People were protesting the decision to not prosecute the two officers involved in the 2018 fatal shooting in Sacramento of Stephon Clark. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

This week, the House Judiciary Committee grilled big-tech executives and activists about the rise of white nationalism on social media.

There is a growing concern that Facebook, Google and other technology companies are acting as digital incubators for racially motivated hate crimes across the world, including a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last year and the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month.

The panel’s experts agreed more needs to be done to address this issue. But one person also drew attention to an area law enforcement could be paying too much attention to: “black identity extremists.”

“We’re deeply concerned about the FBI’s ‘black identity extremist’ designation,” Kristen Clarke, president and chief executive of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the panel. “This is mere distraction from the very real threat of white supremacy that we face today.”

“It is not a real threat,” she added. “It harks back to the dark days of our federal government abusing its power to go after civil rights activists during the heyday of the civil rights movement. There is no such thing as black identity extremism.”

The term stems from 2017, when the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division put together a report warning of the rise of violence against law enforcement officials by black activists. The report seems to link a handful of unrelated acts of violence, suggesting there has been a “resurgence” of “ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity.”

The report was made public by Foreign Policy in October 2017. After its release, it was widely condemned by lawmakers and activists. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) worried the FBI was using the report as an excuse to target “peaceful black activists.”

Others echoed that concern.

“It labels black activists — whose central demands are that government officials be responsible stewards of their power, accountable to the people who elect them and transparent about decision-making — as a threat to national security,” Shanelle Matthews, director of communications for the Black Lives Matter Global Network, and Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, wrote in The Washington Post.

Since then, FBI officials have refused to answer questions about the designation or how it might be used by law enforcement officials. At congressional hearings in 2017 and 2018, FBI officials would not address whether pursuit of “black identity extremists” had impacted surveillance and policing decisions. It is fighting an ACLU effort to access surveillance records related to the term. The FBI has also declined to answer questions from reporters.

Meanwhile, there is no significant data showing that black identity extremism is the cause of deadly violence nationally; one analysis from the Intercept found just one federal prosecution of “individuals the FBI considers to be ‘black identity extremists’.” (As a point of comparison, the Intercept writes that 268 right-wing extremists were “prosecuted in federal courts since 9/11 for crimes that appear to meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism.”)

At this week’s hearing, Clarke said the FBI and other federal agencies need to do a better job of partnering with local police departments to combat the rise of white nationalism in local communities. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) showed a picture of a recent church burning in Louisiana. At least three black churches in Louisiana’s St. Landry parish have been burned over 10 days — something authorities call “suspicious,” and could be tied to a hate crime motivated by white supremacy.

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray says white-nationalist violence is a “persistent, pervasive threat.” “Black identity extremists” aren’t. Clarke believes Wray’s department, lawmakers and others should make that clear.