How the Biden Administration Can Take on White Supremacy

By Heidi Beirich

Taking the stage on January 20 for his inaugural speech in front of the American Capitol that had just been stormed by hundreds of right-wing extremists, President Joe Biden specifically called out the problem of white supremacy and the need to confront it. He denounced the “racism, nativism, fear, demonization” that propelled the assault and said it was now time to confront “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, [and] domestic terrorism.”

Days later, it was announced that the director of national intelligence would work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to produce a comprehensive threat assessment of these movements. The White House also plans to strengthen the National Security Council’s (NSC) ability to counter domestic extremism by improving the flow of information among government agencies, supporting programs to prevent radicalization and looking at ways to disrupt domestic extremist networks.

These are all necessary steps and a very important start, especially given the prior administration’s encouragement of these dangerous groups and ideas. But to confront the challenge of white supremacy and other forms of extremism in the U.S. there are several issues that need to be confronted simultaneously.

As white supremacist extremism is now an international movement propelled by networks that transcend borders, the U.S. needs to work with allies affected by this menace. There is no other way to effectively counter a threat that knows no national borders. As a Brookings Institute report recently said, “By working with allies around the world, the United States can prevent the groups and cells from helping each other, as it does already with jihadi organizations. In addition, a global effort can reveal otherwise unknown individuals who have ties to extremists back at home.”

Of great importance is the need to confront extremism in the Armed Forces and in law enforcement. Nearly one-fifth of those arrested so far in the Capitol insurgency were either veterans or active-duty troops. Police from several jurisdictions were also found among the rioters. Several major terrorist plots in recent years involving dangerous neo-Nazi organizations including the Atomwaffen Division (atomic weapons in German) and The Base (the English translation for Al Qaeda) have involved arrests of active duty troops and veterans. Given the training they have had in weapons and bombs, the danger is obvious. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who committed the largest domestic terrorist attack before 9/11, had been a veteran steeped in white supremacist and militia ideas.

Hate crimes are another area needing attention. In the U.S., less than five percent of hate crimes are actually documented according to the Department of Justice. The FBI, which collects the data, annually reports around 6,000 cases, but the DOJ says the actual number is more like 250,000 hate crimes. Without accurate data, we are unable to actually understand and address this social problem, which is driven by hatred of various kinds.

Another major problem in growing extremism is the role of the social media companies. It’s clear that dangerous ideas like the increasingly antisemitic QAnon conspiracy and racist propaganda such as the “Great Replacement,” which argues that white people are being displaced by people of color in their home countries, could never have spread without the online space. It is time for the U.S. government to investigate curbing the role of technology companies in proliferating hatred and conspiracies.

It is also important for the government to invest in communities most impacted by hate. For too long, resources for issues like hate crimes have not found their way into marginalized communities. By building their resilience, we can also help to fight white supremacy and extremism.

For more on GPAHE’s suggested policies to curb white supremacy and extremism, see our policy brief.

Dr Heidi Beirich is a co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) which has a mission to strengthen and educate a diverse global community committed to exposing and countering racism, bigotry and prejudice; and to promote the human rights values that support flourishing, inclusive societies and democracies.


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Sorry seems to be…

On his or her way out of office, a UK Prime Minister will often send a small group of allies to the House of Lords.

On his way out of office, a US President will let a bigger group out of jail!

The ability to issue a pardon for a federal crime is one of the features of US Politics which can seem odd or illogical.  Why is it that this person can, despite legal cases which have lasted years, get rid of a sentence with a stroke of a pen?

Yet the power to pardon, and pardon for a wide range of crimes, is one which Presidents don’t hesitate to use.

The power isn’t new.  Appearing in Article II Section 2 of the Constitution, it provides considerable latitude to a President who wants to use it.  (Governors also have this power for State crimes, varying considerably in their willingness to use it)

The reason pardoning season often comes round just before an exit is that the President is running out of time and so needs to get all the papers signed at once.  It is also often in a President’s interest to delay action.  After all loyalty, or silence, are more likely from someone hoping for a reward.

Perhaps the most controversial pardon, albeit not one of those in the final days of a Presidency, was that by Gerald Ford of Richard Nixon.  But more modern controversies have included the sheer size of Bill Clinton’s list in the last day of his final term – a list which included some of those caught up in the earlier Whitewater scandal.

It is possible to pardon categories of individuals, as Jimmy Carter did when pardoning those who had dodged the Vietnam draft

And the President can also commute a sentence, as Obama did at the end of his term of office for whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

It is possible to pardon someone who has not yet been convicted.  This prevents the legal process continuing.  It is completely a “get out of jail free” card though.  No President can pardon someone for offences not yet carried out.

For those who have suffered injustice, these Presidential powers can be a way of righting wrongs.  And we know that campaign organisations sometimes lobby for action on individual cases.  It is possible then for an individual President, through these decisions, to send a clear message about certain types of justice.

And as this is often a final action, a pardon list forms a part of Presidential legacy in a way which can overshadow other aspects.

So Donald Trump can use his last-minute decisions to right wrongs, to make a clear statement or to reward supporters.  We’ll know very soon.

PS: For those who want to understand more about this odd feature of US Politics I recommend the Brookings Institution.

Paula Keaveney is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Edge Hill University and leads a module on US Politics.


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Photo by Shealah Craighead