The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Tuesday on “Hate Crimes and the Rise of White Nationalism.” Despite the inherent magnitude of that topic, it is one that hasn’t much interested Republicans. That’s easy to understand. President Trump, whom they seem unable to defy, has embraced white nationalism in his rhetoric and policies, even as he has repeatedly sought to gaslight the public and the press about the racist philosophy’s scope and influence. We don’t know if he or the party ever really tried to control the violence that would inspire, or whether they even cared to do so. But domestic terrorism carried out by far-right extremists, including several mass shootings by self-declared Trump fans, has been on the steady rise in recent years. There have never been as many hate groups in America as there are now, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Still, Republicans have either been content to sit silent or to do as they did on Tuesday, scraping the bottom of the intellectual barrel to distract the public from the crisis at hand.
As the minority party in the House, Republicans are allowed to invite their own guests to testify at hearings. They chose Turning Point USA communications director Candace Owens, a black conservative known for her “Blexit” movement, some inadvisable remarks about Adolf Hitler and a contention on her Facebook page that “I proudly self-identify as an Uncle Tom” because she has “left the plantation.” (As I have written previously about Owens, nothing I can say about her could insult her worse than she insults herself.) Republicans also invited Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America. Suffice to say, those two were invited to troll the hearing much as a rogue internet commenter would ruin a constructive online thread. They alleged that the real threat was not the fact that most hate crimes since 1995 have been perpetrated against black people, but the activities of Antifa and any attempts to hold right-wing inflammatories like themselves accountable for their inciteful speech. She wrongly said that the infamous “Southern Strategy” of using more subtle racism to bait white voters into voting Republican never existed, despite ample proof that it did and the chairman of the Republican National Committee having apologized for it in 2005. He wrongly said that half the world’s Muslims hate Jews. The testimony that Owens and Klein offered was like a stranger’s glance at the truth, unrecognizing and alien.
Sadly, their words were just stupid enough to merit a lot of coverage, so Owens and Klein served their purpose. But the hearing was noteworthy for more than that nonsense, spotlighting both people with lived experience of the horrors wrought by white supremacist violence and experts who were working to end it.
Kristen Clarke, who has won meaningful victories leading the pro bono Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, was the first to speak after Owens delivered her opening statement. Deviating a bit from her prepared remarks, Clarke said that the hearing was about “real issues that are truly a life-and-death matter for far too many.” That had already been driven home by the testimony of Mohammad Abu-Salha, a North Carolina physician whose two daughters and son-in-law, none older than 23, were shot to death in their home in 2015 in a suspected hate crime.
Though FBI director Christopher Wray just last week told the House Appropriations Committee that white nationalist violence is a “persistent, pervasive threat,” Clarke was right to call out the agency for diverting resources to investigate so-called “black identity extremists.”
“Corrosive white supremacist movements are tearing away at the fabric of our nation, and without question, they are using online platforms to recruit new members, activate followers, target communities, organize rallies, stream their murders and incite violence,” Clarke said. (To that point, YouTube had already shut down the comments on its livestream of the hearing because of a flood of bigoted remarks.)
The public policy directors for Facebook and Google, two companies that have historically lacked a sufficient response to the threat of white nationalism, were there, too. Eileen Hershenov, a senior official at the Anti-Defamation League, testified that another “driving force for the resurgence of white supremacy is the role of social media in enabling this hate to spread.” She pointed to a new Anti-Defamation League report released that morning that documented, in the wake of the massacres at a suburban Pittsburgh synagogue and two mosques in New Zealand, how fringe social networking sites “act as echo chambers for the most virulent anti-Semitism and racism, and act as active recruiting grounds for potential terrorists.” She also testified that 78 percent of all extremist-related murders in the United States in 2018 were committed by white supremacists.
Equal Justice Society president Eva Paterson also testified, tracing the history of white supremacy through the 400 years since kidnapped Africans were first brought to Jamestown in 1619. It may seem extreme, for some, to bring slavery into this. But per a new Pew Research poll published on the same day as the hearing, most Americans believe — correctly, in my view — that slavery continues to have an impact on the status of black people in America. Somehow, grasping that truth makes a lot more sense than anything that Candace Owens said.