Then, more than two hours into the session held by House Oversight and Reform subcommittees on national security and civil rights and civil liberties, another hearing witness addressed Owens directly. Earlier, Owens had called it “hilarious” that her fellow panelists did not provide specific numbers on the death toll from white supremacist violence.
“I just have to say that I object strenuously to your use of the word hilarious,” said fellow witness Kathleen Belew, a University of Chicago professor who studies white nationalism, glancing toward the right-wing pundit two seats down. She noted Owens’s response earlier this year after it was revealed that she was named as an inspiration in writings by the Christchurch, New Zealand, mass shooting suspect — a tweet from Owens that began with “LOL!” was panned by critics as insensitive.
The comments set off a spat broadcast later on Owens’s Twitter account and among her supporters, as the conservative blasted Belew as a “Made-up professor” who made a “SEVERE error” and twisted her words.
“You knew exactly what I meant when I said hilarious,” Owens told Belew at the hearing. “And you just tried to do live what the media does all the time to Republicans, to our president and to conservatives, which is try to manipulate what I said to fit your narrative.”
Belew’s suggestion that Owens laughed at people’s slaughter in Christchurch is “absolutely despicable,” she said.
The exchange, tweeted by C-SPAN, came during an already contentious debate over policymakers’ response to white supremacist violence: Some conservatives see political maneuvering in the discussions, while Democrats argue that the GOP and the federal government are not taking the issue seriously enough weeks after a gunman killed 22 people in El Paso. Investigators think the man accused in the case left behind a missive singling out Hispanics and speaking admiringly of the Christchurch shooting suspect, who promoted white nationalist ideas.
Republican lawmakers came to Owens’s defense Friday, with Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) decrying what he said was an attempt to “gang up” on the GOP-called witness and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) saying Belew was behaving inappropriately. For Owens, it also provided a segue back into the skepticism she’d expressed about the day’s proceedings, as she repeated her belief that white nationalism would not crack her list of the top 100 problems facing black Americans. She claims liberals are ignoring problems such as “father absence,” illiteracy and abortion, echoing other conservative focal points.
Owens has made these arguments before, often pointing — as she did Friday — to her authority on the subject as a black woman, while her critics protest that she does not speak for the black community as a whole.
The Post’s Philip Bump described her testimony at a congressional hearing this April:
Asked by the House Judiciary Committee to offer testimony on the subject of hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism, Owens instead used her time at the microphone to broadly disparage Democrats in terms familiar to anyone who’s heard her speeches.“Let me be clear,” she said in her opening statement. “The hearing today is not about white nationalism or hate crimes. It’s about fearmongering, power and control. It’s a preview of a Democrat 2020 election strategy, same as the Democrat 2016 election strategy.”The Washington Post
Various groups have provided statistics on the impact of white supremacist violence. The Anti-Defamation League counts at least 50 people killed by “domestic extremists” in the United States last year, mostly in cases linked to white supremacy. An analysis from the New America think tank says that far-right extremists — a designation that generally includes white nationalists — have killed more people in the United States than Islamic terrorists since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But another of the witnesses at Friday’s hearing, Joshua Geltzer — a Georgetown Law professor with expertise in counterterrorism — declined to give numbers on deaths from white nationalist violence when pressed by a Republican lawmaker.
“Certain motivations for attacks are difficult to categorize,” Geltzer said, though he referred to the comparison between different kinds of extremism after 9/11.
FBI officials have said that racism is a motivator in a large share of the hundreds of domestic terrorism cases they are investigating. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told members of Congress this year that white supremacists and other violent extremists are “a persistent, pervasive threat.”
And on Friday the Department of Homeland Security released a report calling domestic terrorism a risk to the U.S. on par with foreign terrorism.
“In our modern age, the continuation of racially based violent extremism, particularly violent white supremacy, is an abhorrent affront to the nation,” acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan said.
Belew said Friday that numbers on white supremacist attacks are hard to come by because the federal government has not been aggregating them, saying that she, too, wants the statistics.
Owens called those responses “hilarious,” holding them up as evidence that white nationalist violence is not a major issue for the United States or for American blacks.
“I was not referring to the subject matter that is hilarious,” she said later. “I said it’s hilarious that we are sitting in this room today and … nobody can give us real numbers.”
She also dismissed attempts to read into the accused Christchurch shooter’s writings about his alleged inspirations, saying his missive also cited Nelson Mandela.
Belew did not address the dispute over her criticism of Owens’s phrasing in an email to The Post, saying only that she studies “white power” violence because she believes it is a “huge social problem.”
“This topic deserves our attention [and] our good-faith efforts,” she said.