‘When You Talk About White Supremacy, You’ve Got To Take A Hard Look At Our Culture’

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Above photo: Heidi Beirich.

CounterSpin interview with Heidi Beirich on white supremacist violence.

The September 4, 2020, episode of CounterSpin included an archival interview with SPLC’s Heidi Beirich about white supremacist violence, which originally aired June 2, 2017. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: We are in troubling times, listeners know, with people being attacked for simply saying that Black Lives Matter and a president encouraging those attacks. It’s what many feared when Trump came into office. But at the same time, we acknowledge that Trump didn’t create the phenomenon of white supremacist violence. There’s a whole history there that media should be using to shape their recording of present day events, give them context–and hopefully put an end to the “troubled individual” trope to describe people who are, in fact, part of something larger. CounterSpin talked about this in June of 2017 with Heidi Beirich, who leads the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

JJ: The last time we had you on, we talked about how, when then‒candidate Donald Trump was slow to disavow the Ku Klux Klan, media called it a “stumble”—as though Trump had misspoken, or was confused about the existence of white supremacy and its role in campaigns like his own. Now Donald Trump is president, and Southern Poverty Law Center, I understand, tracked some 900 attacks in his first ten days [after the election]. Well, no one thinks Trump invented right-wing extremism, but are we seeing, maybe, a new strain of an old disease?

HB: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question but that we are seeing a new strain of an old disease, and it was encouraged, certainly, by the Trump campaign. And the hate incidents that broke out—there’s almost 900 of them, like you said, right after the election—were the result of the rhetoric in the campaign. I don’t think anybody nowadays thinks that you can simply bash a population like Mexicans, as Trump did, or Muslims, and not get a result that ends up in violence in some cases. And so that’s the situation we find ourselves in, and we have revitalized white supremacist groups, white supremacist thinking in the mainstream. It’s really been a horrible turn of events that’s occurred over the last 16 months.

JJ: I know that you are not in the business of quantifying who is more violent than whom. That’s kind of a mug’s game, and more a deflection from a conversation than anything. But you have suggested that white supremacy is an “unusually combustible mental framework.” What do you mean by that?

HB: What we find again and again, in particular with domestic terrorist acts or heinous hate crimes, like what happened in Portland, is that people exposed to white supremacy, people who suck it in, the Dylann Roofs of the world, the Jeremy Christians of the world, often go on to commit violent acts. If you just look at the list of domestic terrorist attacks, let’s say since Timothy McVeigh in 1995, there’s a handful that are the result of people who have radical interpretations of Islam. But the bulk of the incidents involve people who have come to view whites as superior, and who view this country as essentially undergoing a race war, and they make these violent acts, they do these things, in their minds, to save the country, in particular for white people. It’s a very insidious mode of thinking that justifies things like genocide, ethnic cleansing. And so it’s not surprising that we would get violence out of people who come to believe in these ideas.

JJ: Well, if media were really concerned about domestic terror attacks per se, it seems that we would hear the name you just mentioned, Tim McVeigh, that we’d be hearing that night and noon, wouldn’t we, because, in fact, that attack was back in 1995, but Tim McVeigh is still sort of a figure in some of these circles.

HB: Yeah. Look, Jeremy Christian had a poem or a tribute to McVeigh on his Facebook page. The cell of neo-Nazis which ended up with internecine battles and two men killed that was in Tampa a week and a half ago, they had a picture of McVeigh in their office. And people seem to have forgotten, some sort of amnesia after the 9/11 attacks, which of course were horrific, but up to that point, McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City was the largest loss of life ever in a domestic terrorist incident. Some 180-plus people were killed, including children.

And after 9/11, it was as though—this type of terrorism of course continued to occur, but it was though it didn’t matter, right? All the focus was on the Muslim community, on radical interpretations of Islam, and there was just a reluctance to understand that terrorism comes in more than one form. And of course it’s much easier to point the finger abroad or to a community that you can easily “other” and say is not part of “us”—meaning, in recent years, the Muslim community. When you talk about white supremacy, you’ve got to take a hard look at our culture, because it is endemic, and it was here from the day this country started—even before, actually, with English settlers and so on. And there just seems constantly to be a reluctance to treat that kind of terrorism—and hate crimes, I might add—as seriously as what is influenced by groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda.

JJ: And any thoughts on media? When I was booking you, I said I knew you’d be very busy, and I’m sorry for that, in a way. I think that US reporters should have a deep bench right now on white supremacist violence. It shouldn’t be a concept that sort of springs up anew, and then is forced on them and they need to look into it. It really is, of course, as a story, something that could keep a journalist busy every day.

HB: Sure. Well, I have to say, given the state of the media, where there’s been high turnover in newsrooms and new people coming in, that a lot of folks don’t really have this more historical perspective on white supremacy, let alone to the 1990s. But we’ve got to remember, it’s only the mid-’60s when we dismantled the legal framework that kept segregation, Jim Crow and Black oppression in place. So we are not that far from having written in law that Black people should be treated worse than white people.

And so I think that nowadays, if you’re involved in covering American politics, you have got to know the history of the civil rights movement, and something about American history, and you need to know the violence that has been coming out of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and others inspired by hate ideas, almost since the founding of the country to today, and it’s sort of a fundamental thing to know about.

I am somewhat happy, because I’ve seen in certain newsrooms more specialization on these issues, largely in response to the Trump campaign, because they keep coming up, and because there’s so much domestic terrorism, but we could use more expertise in the media ranks about these issues.

Janine Jackson: That was Heidi Beirich of Southern Poverty Law Center‘s Intelligence Project, speaking with CounterSpin in June of 2017.