Posted inOpinion

The Inauguration: White Supremacy, Domestic Terrorism, and a Biden Presidency

‘Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, a cause of democracy.’

Joe Biden’s speech was primarily one of unity – perhaps, he admitted, a foolish ideal given the times, but one that he reiterated throughout the course of his inaugural address. Having marketed himself as a man for the centre, he addressed both the winners and the losers of the election; something apt as he acknowledged the men who had come before him on both sides of the political line. 

‘This is a great nation, we are good people’, he declared. A reassuring, if flawed, message given the scenes in the capitol less than a fortnight before as armed rioters broke into the senate, with five people losing their lives. Careful to appear a man of the middle, his speech remained cautiously ambiguous as to exactly who ‘we’ are – but his reference to the ‘riotous mob’ that tried to ‘refute the will of the people’ in the Capitol attack implies that for now, at least, those people have no place in a Biden America. The ‘us’, and those who are good people, it seems, would be those who are moved by ‘A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making’. Biden’s administration, then, one notably also led by the first female, African-American, Asian-American VP Kamala Harris, has explicitly prioritised racial justice. 

Biden’s speech, coming in the aftermath of an unthinkably tumultuous year (or, let’s be honest, term) in American politics was positioned to finally give a signal for hope and, crucially, one that was able to prioritise the communities marginalised and disenfranchised in Trump’s America. Most importantly, however, and perhaps most interestingly, Biden’s speech suggested room for development on the front of white supremacy, an issue that continues to plague and divide the country. 

While opposing white supremacy may, to some, seem like a simple and popular mission, it is in fact a winding and complicated objective which, ultimately, could have serious consequences for the first amendment (see p.13). But Biden appeared to suggest that this may be a priority, where he described ‘[t]he rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, that we must confront and we will defeat’. It is as yet unclear whether we are to take white supremacy as underneath the umbrella term of domestic terrorism – something that will have huge consequences for how Biden’s presidency and American politics develops – or whether white supremacy is simply put under the bracket of ‘things we don’t want here’, along with domestic terrorism and political extremism. 

If, hopefully (and perhaps idealistically) we are to interpret Biden’s speech in the former sense, then to truly ‘confront and […] defeat’ white supremacy we could see both the amount of official hate crimes rise as well as actual charges of domestic terrorism: something not yet possible in the US. This issue was highlighted in 2019, in discussions of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the Committee on Oversight and Reform – part of the discussions where Representative Alexandria Occasio-Cortez questioned two representatives of the FBI were shared widely online shortly afterwards. Cortez pointed out that it seemed that acts of white supremacy were deemed as hate crimes, while Muslim perpetrators were most often charged with terrorism. 

The apparent difference, it transpired, is this: currently, the FBI distinguishes between international terrorism and domestic terrorism. International terrorists include not only individuals overseas involved with groups designated as ‘foreign terrorist organisations’ but individuals within the US inspired by those groups, characterised as ‘homegrown violent extremists’. On the other hand, domestic terrorism is defined as being relating to ‘domestic influences, such as racial bias and anti-government sentiment’. While all terrorists seek to divide and create fear, the FBI distinguishes between these homegrown radicalised extremists and those identified as domestic terrorists. 

However, domestic terrorism is not a charge. Domestic terrorism investigations cannot produce a domestic terrorism charge. This means that acts such as the assault on the Capitol – arguably an act of domestic terrorism – cannot produce a domestic terrorism charge. However, there are actual charges of terrorism attached to acts linked to international terrorism groups. The implied conclusion, as Representative Clay said, is appalling: ‘the FBI’s decision to use the color of someone’s skin as a tool to identify terrorists takes our country back to dark days’.

The difference between these charges is that no organisation or network of white supremacists has been designated as a terrorist group. Therefore, to bring charges to individuals involved in acts of domestic terrorism, the FBI often relies on charges such as weapons-related crimes or hate crimes – both of which are assigned fewer of the Bureau’s resources and have lower priority than counter-terrorism. To place white supremacy under actual charges of domestic terrorism – currently a pipe dream for campaigners for racial justice – would mean America’s new middle man may not be quite as middle as he suggests. 

In a country so polemically divided as the United States seems to be, to act as a middle man may be an impossible task, and it’s hard to know what we’re meant to expect of Biden’s presidency at such an early stage. But in a speech which, while espousing unity, seemed to reject those who didn’t identify with the call for racial justice or supported the recent Trump-led riots as not ‘one of us’, perhaps to be a middle man who satisfies most people may be slightly more achievable – in Biden’s America –  after all.