In early August 2017, the counterterrorism division of the FBI released a report warning of the danger of “Black Identity Extremists.” Jana Winter and Sharon Weinberger reported for Foreign Policy that, as “white supremacists prepared to descend on Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, the FBI warned about a new movement that was violent, growing, and racially motivated. Only it wasn’t white supremacists; it was ‘black identity extremists.’”
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch Staff reported that the FBI report used the term BIEs (the Bureau’s acronym for “Black Identity Extremists”) to describe “a conglomeration of black nationalists, black supremacists, and black separatists, among other disaffiliated racist individuals who are anti-police, anti-white, and/or seeking to rectify perceived social injustices against blacks.” According to the SPLC report, the FBI was “taking some heat from historians, academics and former government officials for creating the new ‘BIE’ term,” which categorized a range of activists, not by their common ideologies or goals, but by race.
In the wake of Charlottesville and at a time when the Trump administration has defunded organizations that encouraged hate group members to leave such groups, the FBI’s increased focus on non-white groups seems a bit of a diversion. The SPLC story suggested that the leaked document “might be a deliberate attempt by the Trump administration to divert attention away from the larger, more serious threat of white supremacists and other far-right extremists.” In particular, the FBI report made a leap when it defined a wide array of activist groups as “a movement.” Referencing the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the FBI report posited that it was “very likely” that subsequent incidents of alleged police abuse against African Americans had “spurred an increase in premediated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement.”
Corporate media coverage has covered the FBI report on “black identity extremists” in narrow ways. In October, the New York Times challenged the label in its Opinion section, while Fox News broadcast a minute and a half clip, complete with scary music, reporting that the FBI had declared “Black Identity Extremists” as a “violent domestic threat.” In November, NBC News covered the story, even acknowledging the FBI’s history of going after black groups, but this report also suggested that “lawmakers” were leading the fight against the profiling, by “demanding answers.” Coverage like this both draws the focus away from the active white supremacist movement and feeds the hate and fear on which such groups thrive.
Jana Winter and Sharon Weinberger, “The FBI’s New U.S. Terrorist Threat: ‘Black Identity Extremists’,” Foreign Policy, October 06, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/10/06/the-fbi-has-identified-a-new-domestic-terrorist-threat-and-its-black-identity-extremists/.
Hatewatch Staff, “FBI ‘Black Identity Extremists’ report stirs controversy,” Southern Poverty Law Center, October 25, 2017, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/10/25/fbi-black-identity-extremists-report-stirs-controversy.
Amy Goodman, “Life After Hate: Trump Admin Stops Funding Former Neo-Nazis Who Now Fight White Supremacy,” Democracy Now! August 17, 2017, https://www.democracynow.org/2017/8/17/life_after_hate_trump_admin_stops.
Brandon Patterson, “Exclusive: Internal Documents Show Police Spied on New York Black Lives Matter Group,” Mother Jones, October 19, 2017, http://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2017/10/police-spied-on-new-york-black-lives-matter-group-internal-police-documents-show/#.
Student Researcher: Hailey Schector (Syracuse University)
Faculty Evaluator: Jeff Simmons (Syracuse University)