'White Terror': racism and the racialization of violence

It is important that people are highlighting not only the racist profiling, double standard and demands placed on Muslims, but also correct perceptions about the identities of terrorist threats.

Aaron Winter
8 December 2015

Dylann Roof being escorted by police. Demotix/The Shelby Star. All rights reserved.In the wake of the November 13 2015 attacks by IS in Paris, like the Charlie Hebdo attacks on January 7 before them, we heard the increasingly familiar accusations that most Muslims are supporters of terrorism, if not terrorists themselves, and demands for Muslims to prove the opposite by apologising, denouncing terrorism and terrorists, locating their moderates and fixing their communities and religion.

In the wake of the shooting of five African Americans at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota by alleged white supremacists on November 24, like the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17 by Dylann Roof before it, we heard many ask why is it not called terrorism when white people do it? This was reiterated, with ‘Christian’ replacing or added to ‘white’, following the attack on the Planned Parenthood clinic by Robert Lewis Dear in Colorado Springs, Colorado on November 27.

This claim/question and attempts to identify ‘white terrorism’ has been the focus of memes and the #whiteterrorism hashtag on Twitter, and developed in posts from Tim Wise, and articles such as Big Think’s ‘Why does the media refuse to call white murderers terrorists? and Salon’s ‘Why is it always the white guy’ and ‘Let’s deport the white males?’. One Senator, Sherrod Brown (D-OH), also added his voice, saying about terrorists: ‘Normally, they look more like me than they look like Middle Easterners … [t]hey are generally white males, who have shot up people in movie theaters and schools.

While often rhetorical (although some are demanding terrorism charges be laid immediately in each case), it is an important response that attempts to highlight the hypocrisy and double standard, as well as racism and Islamophobia, of such accusations against, profiling of, and demands placed on Muslims from the public, politicians and press. It also serves to correct perceptions about where the greatest number of terrorist threats and attacks come from.

Yet, there is a limit to the hypocrisy or double standard ‘what about’ argument, particularly that predicated on the assumption or claim that no one uses the term ‘terrorism’ in such cases. One limitation is that it may be too early to determine and is an ongoing ‘active shooter’ situation. In one case of this approach backfiring by being used immediately in every case, following the December 2nd San Bernardino shootings, Gawker ran the article 'FBI: San Bernardino Shooting Suspects Are Probably Americans, Not “Terrorists”' by Ashley Feinberg.

It claimed that when David Bowdich, Assistant Director of the FBI, stated that ‘we do not know if this is a terrorist incident’, he meant: ‘“we do not know if this is related to Islam from overseas” (or an ‘American’). Not only did he not say this, but when it was revealed that the alleged shooters were Muslim, it looked like the FBI was being cautious and not rushing to judgement, while the article was demanding the immediate reactive use of terrorism as a label, as opposed to exposing the Islamophobic use of it as intended (assuming that the shooters were ‘white’ and/or Christian).

The second limitation is that it may only be selected news outlets, pundits or politicians of a particular political persuasion refusing to use the term. There is no denying or hiding the history of terrorism committed not only by whites, but actually in the name of whiteness, or more accurately white supremacy, as well as Christianity in the case of the Klan and abortion clinic bombers. In fact, the US federal government and FBI have identified white racist violence as 'terrorism' historically. Terrorism was a factor in the FBI COINTELPRO investigations and House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC) hearings into the Klan in the 1960s.

In FBI terrorism statistics from 1954-2000, #1 with 31.2% of terrorist incidents and 51.6% of fatalities were ‘White Racist/Rightist’ perpetrators. Anti-abortion terrorists were #4 with 6.2% of incidents and 0.9% of fatalities (1). These included the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963 and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on April 19 1995. The FBI and security services have also focused on terrorism committed by whites but not on behalf of whiteness (e.g. environmentalist or left-wing such as the Weather Underground) and by Christians, including that in the name of Christianity (e.g. anti-abortion).

In 2009, Homeland Security, formed in the wake of 9/11, issued the report Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, and in 2014 the far right Sovereign Citizen movement was identified by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) as the number one terrorist threat to AmericaOne of the Minneapolis shooters allegedly identifies as a Sovereign Citizen. Ironically, many of those who claim that no one uses the term ‘terrorism’ when a white person or Christian actually use such examples. They also clearly forget the case of the IRA and profiling of Irish Catholics.

Does that mean that the claims of hypocrisy and double standards, as well as racism and Islamophobia, are unfounded? No, it just starts with an inaccurate claim – that no one uses the term for white people – and, more significantly, a problematic proposition - more use of terrorism as a label and more racialization of terror. These are the more significant limitations of this approach. Pushed further, it would uncover the fact that racism, hypocrisy and double standards, and the solution to them, do not lie in the label, but an analysis of the wider and more complex system of racism.

This presents challenges on the level of analysis and identification. In terms of analysis, while some of those who make the label argument also engage in an analysis of white supremacy, they often not only ignore structural and systemic white supremacy, but actually distract from it by associating it with such extreme manifestations. In terms of identification, the question is not what they are called, but why white people are not implicated in such acts, particularly as they are often predicated on a white supremacy that, despite claims by the far right that it is under threat or lost, maintains a hold in American institutions and socio-economic structures? It may be that the continuing existence of structural hegemonic white supremacy and lack of challenges to this, helps prevent identification with the extremes. It is also true that it is easier to associate a group of people or community with terrorism than get them to believe it, particularly in the absence of the power and a system to enforce it.

In the Time magazine issue on the Oklahoma City bombing, the cover image was of Timothy McVeigh’s mug shot with the headline ‘The Face of Terror’. In the related article, Elizabeth Gleick argued that ‘a sense of guilty introspection swept the country when the FBI released the sketches of the suspects, distinctly Caucasian John Does one and two’. In his essay ‘Can Whiteness speak?’, Mike Hill argued that more than guilt and introspection, the image and headline were terrifying to Time’s implied white readers because it rendered whiteness distinct or particular, as opposed to universal, and implicated whiteness in the terror (2). Yet, this did not occur.

The hegemonic universalism that renders whiteness invisible and non-racialized (to itself) is not challenged by the act of an individual (or even a suspicious pattern of individuals, who happen to be aligned with a movement), because the opposite of white universalism is not particularism, but individualism. When a Muslim commits an act of terrorism, he or she is seen as representative of the faith and community, while a white person who commits an act of terrorism is represented as an individual with a biographical, political and psychological narrative that causally explains him or her away as a ‘bad apple’, aberration, deviant or psychopath. In the cases of Birmingham, Oklahoma City, Charleston and Minnesota, he is a racist and/or right-wing terrorist as opposed to a racial subject (3).

That system has yet to be broken and is unlikely to, even with acknowledgement and naming. The Oklahoma City bombing did lead to five senate subcommittee hearings into, amongst other things, Combating Domestic TerrorismThe Militia Movement in the United States and The Nature and Threat of Violent Anti-Government Groups in America, and the passing of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The original Bill had been controversial and resisted partly because of potential  negative implications for Arab-American and Irish-American populations. It is ironic that an attack by white right-wing terrorists made that an acceptable price to pay (4).

One of the more curious criticisms about the Charleston shooting was that law enforcement decided to pursue it as a hate crime, as opposed to a terrorism case. Much of the history of ‘white terrorism’ was racist and because of a racist system and absence of federal hate crimes legislation,  attacks  against African Americans were not often pursued by law enforcement, particularly those state and local law enforcement agencies that were enforcing Jim Crow and opposing civil rights activists. Instead, the federal government used the violence and terrorism of the Klan and other far right white supremacists to combat them.

While such violence, most notably the Birmingham bombing and murders of voter registration workers Michael Schwerner, James Clancy and Andrew Goodman in Mississippi on June 21 1964, led to greater urgency to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Klan not only presented a challenge to its safe implementation, but were also viewed as the unacceptable face of a racist system of laws and practices that could be exorcised. This led to the FBI investigations into the Klan in 1964 and the HUAC hearings into Klan activities in 1965-7.

This was followed by the 1969 Federal Hate Crimes Law which allowed for the prosecution of actions which injure or intimidate people based on their race colour, creed or national origin, but only when the victim was engaged in federally protected activities It was only in 2009 when Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. (1998) Hate Crimes Prevention Act, that the federally protected activity prerequisite was dropped. While the use of the label ‘terrorism’ can be appropriate and useful in certain cases,  it would seem odd to oppose the application of the hate crime legislation that has been fought for in favour of terrorism, as if the former conceals racism and the latter exposes it. It would also seem dangerous to reject hate crimes in the face of increasing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism justified by terrorism, as well as the racist violence committed against African Americans that Black Lives Matter stands against and for which it is targeted.

It is important that people are highlighting not only the racist profiling, double standard and demands placed on Muslims, but also correct perceptions about the identities of terrorist threats. Yet, I am not sure that the answer is greater (reactive) use of terrorism as a label (particularly considering the ideological use it has been put to thus far) and more racialization of terrorism. Shouldn’t we be talking about movements, ideologies and acts and not races and religions? The terms of debate need to be challenged, not accepted and reproduced, as this strategy does not actually remove the labels of terrorism and extremism attached to Muslims and the effects of profiling and securitization. Nor does it really challenge the racism and prejudice that lies behind the labelling of Muslims as terrorists and extremists or racist violence.

This article was originally published here.


  1. C. Hewitt, Understanding Terrorism in America: From the Klan to Al Qaeda, London: Routledge, 2003, p.15.
  2. M. Hill, ‘Can Whiteness Speak? Institutional Anomies, Ontological Disasters, and Three Hollywood Films’, White Trash: Race and Class in America, ed. A. Newitz and M. Wray, New York: Routledge, 1997, p. 172.
  3. A. Winter, ‘American Terror: From Oklahoma City to 9/11 and After’, Discourses and Practices of Terrorism: Interrogating Terror, eds. B. Brecher, M. Devenney and A. Winter, Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. pp. 156-176.
  4. D. Cole and J. Dempsey, Terrorism and the Constitution: Sacrificing Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security, New York: The New Press, 2002, p. 113.
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