Home Technology How to prevent another white supremacist massacre

How to prevent another white supremacist massacre

After an avowed white supremacist carried out a carefully orchestrated massacre at Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, New York, on May 14, shooting 13 people (11 of them Black and two white), nationwide outrage ensued.

Critics questioned why America has yet to challenge racist violence. How was it possible that yet another white supremacist, motivated to kill “as many Black people as possible” according to his manifesto, was not stopped by law enforcement before he drove hours to implement a heinous act? How was he able to acquire a gun?

In 2020, the US Department of Homeland Security identified racially and ethnically motivated extremists, particularly white supremacist extremists, as “the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland” and said that they have conducted more lethal attacks in the United States than any other domestic extremist movement.

This isn’t inevitable. There are steps the federal government can take to quell this violence. In the wake of other instances of white supremacist violence, the federal government instituted some policy reforms, but they have never matched the level of threat, Brette Steele, the senior director for preventing targeted violence at the nonpartisan think tank the McCain Institute, told me.

I talked to Steele, who has previously worked to develop strategies against white supremacist violence at the FBI, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security, about policy proposals for ending racist violence, from refining the national message against white supremacy to prevention measures like investing in public health. As the Justice Department faces public pressure to take a leading role in investigating the Buffalo shooting, I talked to Steele about what’s happened in the year since the White House unveiled its strategy to combat domestic terrorism.

Steele explains what it takes to deter white supremacist violence, the connection between these policy reforms and the gun control movement, and what a future without white supremacist violence would look like, and mean, for the United States. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Fabiola Cineas

I’d like to start off by getting on the same page about terminology, particularly why it’s important to name and identify the kind of violence we are talking about. So, what exactly is white supremacist violence?

Brette Steele

Terminology in this space is complicated — there’s no single term that works perfectly to describe all of the various movements that you’ll see. When people talk about white supremacist organizations, these are the groups that believe that the white race is superior over other races. Then there’s talk instead about white nationalists, and the Venn diagram is closely correlated between the two, but not perfectly. And then some talk about the violent far right, although that terminology can be politicized in ways that I find less helpful.

So when I talk about white supremacists, I’m really talking about the whole section of movements that believe that the white race is superior over other races and use that idea to justify violence.

Fabiola Cineas

The Department of Homeland Security has called white supremacist violence “the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” What’s your reaction to that? Do America’s lawmakers collectively view white supremacist violence in this light? Do our policies match this threat?

Brette Steele

DHS’s position that white supremacist violence is the most pervasive threat is borne out by data.

When you look at the number of lethal attacks in the United States over the last several years, the number of white supremacist or white nationalist attacks far exceeds violent extremist attacks from other types of threats and terrorism that the FBI tracks, be it anti-government attacks, international terrorism, or anti-abortion attacks.

I am no longer in government so I am not as well-positioned now to say to you, yes, it’s appropriately resourced. I can say that when I was in government up until 2017, the level of resources aligned to domestic terrorism versus international terrorism were nowhere near commensurate. I think there’s been a really concerted effort, especially in the last year, to realign those resources so that they’re consistent with that, and that was part of the national strategy that the White House released.

Part of what we recommended to the White House with the policy blueprint was the need to make those resources align with the threat of white supremacist violence, letting that empirical understanding drive those resources.

Members of the Proud Boys march in Manhattan in November 2021.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Fabiola Cineas

Your team recommended many different policy proposals across a number of categories that the federal government could implement. The recommendations start at the executive branch — getting the president to vocally oppose white supremacy and root out white supremacy and racial bias in the federal workforce. How would you assess the Biden administration on this?

Brette Steele

This area of recommendations is where we’ve seen the greatest traction, the greatest amount of progress since the blueprint was published last year. Since the White House strategy, they have directed federal agencies to develop their own implementation plan. They are working to allocate resources in accordance with threats. They have joined the Christchurch Call.

As far as employee guidelines go, though, I understand that that may be happening behind the scenes, but we haven’t seen that come to fruition yet. And the same goes with federal hiring standards.

Fabiola Cineas

And by “employee guidelines,” you’re referring to making sure that federal employees aren’t tied to white supremacist organizations and/or don’t endorse white supremacist violence?

Brette Steele

Yes, and that they are not engaging in violent actions like breaching the Capitol on January 6. With all of this, we are going to need to keep an eye on accountability. Are those resources being allocated commensurate with the threat in practice? Only time will tell if that is sustained over time. I know the administration launched an effort to implement these changes, but I can’t tell you from the outside how effective that effort has been.

Fabiola Cineas

Another large part of your recommendations is about data collection. You argue that there are so many knowledge gaps around white supremacist violence that keep policymakers from being able to develop targeted strategies. What can be done here and how could reforms have prevented the Buffalo shooting?

Brette Steele

We need so much better data to truly understand the pervasiveness of this threat and what steps we can take to effectively prevent it at the local level. We need to understand the pervasiveness in order to effectively intervene.

When you compare the hate crimes data from the FBI versus the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey estimates on the number of hate crimes, the delta is gigantic. It’s in the hundreds of thousands. Much greater data would help us get ahead of violence like what we saw in Buffalo. We need to better understand the threat, and that comes both from primary research at the academic level, but we also need more diverse channels of reporting. Not every community member feels safe reporting a hate crime to law enforcement. We need to diversify our channels of reporting such that you can get better data.

Fabiola Cineas

What additional kinds of data could have helped prevent the Buffalo shooting?

Brette Steele

More data could have helped us understand prevalence and where we should develop multidisciplinary capacity to actually intervene with individuals and provide wraparound services to divert them from violence. The additional data could then help us better communicate with communities about where to go for help, to understand how they can reach out for support and feel safe in doing so. This isn’t about reporting on someone you love, but is about seeking help and seeking out background on this approach. If we can build this kind of capacity at the local level, and build trust and confidence, then you can have the people who are in that position to observe behavior change over time know where to go for help, and ideally, overcome their reluctance to seek that help when they need it.

Fabiola Cineas

What are some specific steps the government can take to counter recruiting and infiltration in the military and law enforcement?

Brette Steele

Training regarding white supremacist recruitment threats should be provided to all members of the military and law enforcement. DOD is already taking some good steps to address extremism and diversity and inclusion policies. The DOD could better leverage existing workplace surveys mandated by the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] to allow service members and civilians to report on any concerning behaviors they observe.

Another important population is our veterans, who are also targeted by extremist groups. Transition assistance programs for separating and retiring service members should include trainings which address extremist recruitment tactics and positive community resources. The VA could also train psychologists and social workers on staff to provide wraparound support to individuals at risk of violence.

Fabiola Cineas

What connections do you see between the January 6 riot, the Buffalo shooting, and other acts of white supremacist violence? Is it useful to make these kinds of connections?

Brette Steele

The Buffalo shooter was inspired by white supremacists who have committed similar horrific acts, such as the Christchurch shooting in 2019, the El Paso shooting in 2019 and the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston in 2015. Unfortunately, there is a demonstrated history of past attacks inspiring similar future attacks. Making these kinds of connections helps law enforcement to assess the threat of a copycat attack in the future in hopes of preventing it. From a behavioral health standpoint, looking for common risk factors among shooters can also help with earlier identification of individuals who may be struggling and in need of intervention.

Curtis Clayton holds a sign protesting racism in the wake of the shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

While some individuals who have been convicted of charges associated with the January 6 attacks do belong to white supremacist groups, others are associated with different extremist movements, conspiracy theories, or have no discernible ideology. In addition, there are overlaps across white supremacist ideologies and those of other extremist movements. As investigations into January 6 are ongoing, it’s too soon to connect the dots there.

Fabiola Cineas

What’s the relationship between the fight to end white supremacist violence and Congress’ failure to pass gun control legislation?

Brette Steele

Guns are increasingly the weapon of choice for white supremacists who commit acts of violence. From 2010 to 2016, 56,130 hate crimes in the United States involved the use of a gun. And while individuals convicted of felony hate crimes cannot purchase firearms, anyone convicted on misdemeanor hate crimes charges can.

Fabiola Cineas

Is there something that the country still gets wrong about white supremacist violence or refuses to accept?

Brette Steele

The most common misconception is that white supremacist violence is not an issue in this country, or that it is a minor issue compared to other forms of violent extremism. That is simply not true. From 2012-2021, most extremist-related murders in the US were committed by right-wing extremists, and 73 percent of those killings were carried out specifically by white supremacists. And yet a narrative persists that foreign terrorists or left-wing extremist groups pose the greatest threat to our national security.

The executive branch is working to address this misconception by reallocating resources according to threat levels. For example, the White House released the first-ever National Strategy to Counter Domestic Terrorism last year, which federal departments and agencies are working to implement. The legislative branch could do more to address this issue by finding bipartisan solutions that to date have been stymied by polarization of this topic.

Fabiola Cineas

What, to you, would America look like or be like if it truly started to confront white supremacist violence?

Brette Steele

America would be a more peaceful, inclusive place for all people. We have a long history of white supremacist violence in this country — this is not an issue that can simply be resolved overnight. But fully acknowledging the prevalence of white supremacist violence could bring healing to communities that have long been its victims. And ending white supremacist violence would create a safe society for all, delivering on the American promise of an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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