Historicizing White Supremacist Terrorism with Ida B. Wells

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In light of increasing white supremacist violence in the United States, calls to identify such violence as terrorism have surged in public discourse. Federal and state agencies have taken up these demands and included white supremacy in counterterrorism and national security policy. While this classification appears to remove the racist double standard in applications of the terrorism label, it has come under criticism for obscuring the history and distinctly U.S. American roots of white supremacy, on the one hand, and expanding the harmful and typically racially coercive consequences of U.S. counterterrorism, on the other hand. There is, however, a robust yet neglected tradition in U.S. racial justice activism that uses the language of terrorism to make sense of white supremacy. By examining this tradition, this essay offers a more nuanced assessment of the dangers and possibilities of classifying white supremacy as terrorism. Specifically, I look at Ida B. Wells’s analysis of lynching as racial terrorism to recover an alternative narrative of white supremacist terrorism. I argue that the understanding of white supremacy as terrorism in her writings not only exposes the partisan use of these terms and their complicity in constructing a narrowly circumscribed and biased public knowledge about racial domination, but also reveals some mistaken assumptions of the current debate. This essay thus sheds new light on a neglected discourse of white supremacist terrorism and makes it relevant for contemporary purposes.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages30
JournalPolitical Theory
StatePublished - 2021


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