In August 2017, the counterterrorism division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued an intelligence assessment warning law enforcement officers, including the Department of Homeland Security, 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 (SPLC)’s Hatewatch staff reported that the FBI’s intelligence assessment used the term “BIE” (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.
Independent news outlets reported that, in the wake of Charlottesville and at a time when the Trump administration had defunded organizations that encouraged hate-group members to leave those groups, the FBI’s increased focus on nonwhite groups seemed like a diversion. Thus, for example, the SPLC 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 assessment 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 of African Americans had “spurred an increase in premediated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement.”
The corporate media have covered the FBI report on “black identity extremists” in narrow or misleading ways. In October, an opinion piece in the New York Times challenged the FBI’s use of the “BIE” label, while Fox News broadcast a 99-second clip, with an ominous soundtrack added, reporting that the FBI had declared “Black Identity Extremists” as a “violent domestic threat.” In November, NBC News covered the story, and even acknowledged the FBI’s history of going after black groups, but the report also suggested that “lawmakers” were leading the fight against the racial profiling, by “demanding answers.” Coverage like this both draws focus away from the active white supremacist movement and feeds the hate and fear on which such a movement thrives.
Jana Winter and Sharon Weinberger, “The FBI’s New U.S. Terrorist Threat: ‘Black Identity Extremists,’” Foreign Policy, October 6, 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, interview with Christian Picciolini, “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 E. Patterson, “Police Spied on New York Black Lives Matter Group, Internal Police Documents Show,” 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)