US Government

The Right and Wrong Way to Fight White Supremacy

August 28, 2017

Meryl Chertoff is executive director of the Aspen Institute Justice & Society Program. The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

Last month, George Selim, who had led efforts by the US Department of Homeland Security on countering violent extremism, departed from his position in government.  A conservative Republican, Selim joined the department under then-President George W. Bush as senior policy adviser at the DHS Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, served through the Obama administration as the first head of the DHS Office on Community Partnerships created in 2015,  and on the staff of the National Security Council. He is highly regarded in the US Muslim community, by state public safety officials, and by the homeland security community. On Monday, the Anti-Defamation League, one of the oldest and most experienced organizations countering anti-semitism and anti-minority faith bias, announced Selim’s appointment as Senior Vice President of Programs, overseeing the historic Jewish anti-hate group’s education, law enforcement, and community security programs, as well as its flagship Center on Extremism.

After the election of Donald Trump, the DHS office that Selim led came under attack from elements in the new president’s administration. The Trump administration views extremism as a problem only in US Muslim communities, despite a warning from DHS and the FBI in an internal intelligence bulletin of the threat posed by white supremacy. White supremacists “were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016 … more than any other domestic extremist movement,” the two agencies wrote in a May 10 document obtained by Foreign Policy. Members of the white supremacist movement “likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year,” they concluded.

Following a review of grants made during the Obama administration, DHS in 2017 revoked previously awarded grants for programs meant to address violent extremism, including one to “Life After Hate,” an innovative organization that works with reformed and recovering white supremacists and neo-Nazis.  The revocation of the Life After Hate grant is an embarrassment to the administration, coming scant weeks before white nationalist violence in Charlottesville proved that extremism in America is as likely, perhaps more likely, to come from angry white men than religious minority members.

The effect of the Trump administration’s sympathies has forced organizations working to build “antibodies” to extremism in US Muslim communities to return DHS grants, and has undermined much of the trust build through 16 years of effort by presidents and US officials of both parties. I know — I have worked with Selim and his colleagues on some of these networks of trust through our Inclusive America Project at the Aspen Institute.

Selim’s work, lauded by past DHS officials of both parties, now will have a chance to flourish on the non-profit side. In the weeks since Charlottesville, the ADL has announced a million dollar donation from James Murdoch, son of Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch to counter anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. It has recent received millions in contributions from around the nation, much of it from first-time donors. That largesse is a great jumping-off point for a robust anti-extremism program I hope will take an “all-hazards” approach, targeting the sources of extremism in the US whether it is white nationalist inspired, ISIS-inspired, or lone wolf radicalization. With his broad network of contacts in state and local government, law enforcement, and community leaders across the US, Selim is well-acquainted with best practice models and pilots that were pioneered during both the Bush and Obama years.

As there is no discernible leadership coming from the White House on this issue, and indeed given that some of the president’s self-contradictory pronouncements in the last days suggest strong affinity for the white nationalists, efforts to combat extremism will need to come from state and local government and the private sector. The announcement of Selim for the number two position at the ADL gives some reason for optimism at last.

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