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By conservative estimates, far-right terror killed 87 people during the first three years of the Trump administration, nearly twice as many as the last three years of the Obama administration. White supremacist violence accounts for the majority of terrorist attacks committed in the United States, the frequency and lethality of which is only escalating. Most recently, six women of Asian descent were killed in the recent Atlanta spa shootings. It’s a grim testament to our national numbness toward tragedy that those slain are barely being talked about anymore.
While former President Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric is in part to blame for the rise in white supremacist attacks, the other side of the coin is Trump’s Federal Bureau of Investigation director Chris Wray, whom President Joe Biden has said he does not plan to fire or replace. Wray oversaw this surge in far-right terror, and did little to mitigate the growing movement of organized white nationalist violence. As a result, those who find themselves in the crosshairs of white supremacist conspiracy theories are more vulnerable to racist attacks—and in the case of the Atlanta spa shootings, face targeted killings.
Structural racism within the FBI of course isn’t new — from longtime director J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance and intentional discrediting of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King to post-9/11 spying on immigrant communities. However, as Biden helms the executive branch, he should use his power to keep these agencies in line with his goals of racial justice and counter white supremacist terror.
Wray’s unwillingness to take far-right domestic terror seriously is well-documented. Testifying before a Senate Judiciary committee hearing in July 2019, Wray said that “Jihadist” and “foreign-inspired” terror posed the greatest threat to the U.S., despite evidence that far-right acts of domestic terrorism outnumbered Islamist terror plots and acts (half of which the FBI caught through sting operations) by a 2-to-1 margin. In fact, Wray neglected to include white supremacy and white nationalism as threats to America at all in his statement to the committee. And his vague mention of racism also failed to connect so-called “lone wolf” shootings with a broader movement of terror attacks motivated by white supremacist beliefs. While Wray assured Congress that the FBI still took white supremacist violence seriously, leaked documents revealed the agency only considered far-right terror to be a “medium” threat.
Notoriously, these leaked documents revealed the actual priorities of the FBI’s counterterrorism unit: so-called “Black Identity Extremists,” groups considered to be “anti-authority,” and “animal rights/environmental extremists.” Wray’s FBI dedicated significant resources to the completely fabricated “Black Identity Extremist” category of domestic terror. No terrorist groups exist which use this moniker or anything similar to it, and no crimes have been recorded driven by anything like what the FBI describes as the ideology of this group.
Despite this, the bureau used federal resources to target activists in the Black Lives Matter movement through sweeping surveillance and coordination with local law enforcement. We don’t know the extent of this surveillance, due to the FBI’s heavily redacted documents. But the agency’s “Iron Fist” program, created to infiltrate Black activism with undercover agents, bore disturbing resemblance to Cointelpro—the FBI program that targeted civil rights leaders and anti-war activists in the 1960s to prevent the success and popularity of these social movements. The recent Oscar-winning film Judas and the Black Messiah depicts the infiltration of the Black Panther movement in Chicago and the murder of leader Fred Hampton, a low point in the FBI’s long and troubled history of white supremacy.
Under Wray’s leadership, the FBI’s focus on dismantling the Black Lives Matter movement implicitly dismissed the reality of police misconduct and extrajudicial killings that Black Americans face. To the contrary, the police killings of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, and countless others were met with coordinated surveillance of movement leaders, protestors, and everyday people fighting for justice.
The FBI’s sweeping surveillance of Black activists also took precedence over the investigation of actual incidents of domestic terrorism, including the mass shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and another at a Walmart in heavily Hispanic El Paso. Indeed, the FBI’s skewed resources and inaction during Wray’s tenure repeatedly failed to detect and prevent surges in far-right terror.
Research and reporting from Type Investigations and Reveal show that from 2017 to 2019, the majority of identified perpetrators of domestic terror attacks were white males motivated by a nexus of far right-right ideologies. These included white supremacist groups, militias, anti-government Soverign Citizens, and groups motivated by other forms of ideological racism and anti-Semitism. As the FBI publically decried “Islamist” extremism as the main threat to U.S. security, the data assembled by investigative journalists revealed a different reality of so called “homegrown” terrorism: organized white nationalists. Able to operate with relative impunity, an organized white nationalist movement is poised to execute mass killings, kidnap elected officials, and even attempt to take over the Capitol.
Wray’s leadership at the FBI is but one example of the many Trump appointees who turned their respective corners of the executive branch into ideological vehicles to serve the president’s depraved and corrupt politics. Firing Trump holdovers like Wray represents the bare minimum of accountability, to say nothing of the human decency central to Biden’s political persona. Congressional investigations into the full extent of Trumpian cruelty in all branches of the executive branch is still sorely needed. Those who used their position to perpetrate white supremacy must have no place in the federal government, and certainly those charged with protecting the public from it who instead fabricated conspiracies about the victims of that ideology should never be able to show their faces in public again.
The capitol insurrection of January 6 and now the mass murder of six Asian women in Atlanta underscores the gruesome reality of far-right terror we find ourselves in today. Biden has often said that he was moved to run for president after the killing of Heather Heyer at 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Firing Wray and reorienting federal criminal investigation and enforcement is something Biden can do tomorrow to respond to white supremacist terrorism. A failure to act sends a quite grim message, especially for a president who proclaims racial justice and inclusion as major goals.