HBCU bomb threats bring new attention to domestic terrorism bill targeting white supremacy

EXCLUSIVE: “The greatest threat to America at this time is domestic terrorism in the rise of white supremacy,” Jackson Lee said during an exclusive interview with theGrio

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The wave of bomb threats on the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) has reignited concerns about the rise of domestic terrorism in the United States and its connection to white supremacy.

Nearly two dozen HBCUs were targeted during Black History Month, prompting campus evacuations and several probes by the FBI and ATF. Some campuses, such as in the case of Howard University, received several bomb threats. 

Howard University (Photo credit: Jessica Floyd/theGrio)

On Wednesday, the FBI announced that there had been 57 total bomb threats to HBCUs, places of worship, and other faith-based and academic institutions since January, according to The Washington Post. The agency is now investigating the incidents as hate crimes and said the probes are “of the highest priority.”

On Capitol Hill, members of Congress have turned their attention to the rise of threats targeting minority institutions in the wake of this month’s bomb threats. 

Democrats on the Hill will mark up the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would authorize federal agencies – namely the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Justice – to monitor, analyze, investigate and prosecute domestic terrorism.

The legislation would also create an “interagency task force to analyze and combat white supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration of the uniformed services and federal law enforcement agencies,” according to a summary of the bill.

The bill was first introduced in January 2021, weeks after a majority white mob in support of former President Donald Trump – some of whom were members of known white supremacist groups – stormed the U.S. Capitol building in an attempt to stop the electoral count that named Joe Biden as the victor in the 2020 presidential election.

U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who is a co-sponsor of the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, saw the opportunity to revisit the bill in the wake of the bomb threats made against HBCU campuses.

Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas (Photo by Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images)

“The greatest threat to America at this time is domestic terrorism in the rise of white supremacy,” Jackson Lee said during an exclusive interview with theGrio

The longtime Texas congresswoman said that in order to understand the seriousness of the bomb threats made against HBCUs and other minority institutions, one has to look at the uptick in white grievance politics that have led up to this moment, including the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned deadly in 2017 and prompted then-President Trump to infamously claim that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

Jackson Lee said these events are “sort of stair steps that have now gotten us to a point where innocent young people” are being threatened in an environment that is supposed to foster learning. The congresswoman, who is chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, led a hearing last week Thursday on the matter that spotlighted the rising threats against minority institutions.

During her remarks at the hearing, Congresswoman Jackson Lee emphasized not just the increased incidents of white domestic terrorism, but also the history of such terror throughout the 19th and 20th centuries that resulted in lynchings, the bombings of Black churches and fear tactics inflicted on Black communities by the Ku Klux Klan, including burning crosses being placed near the doorsteps of African American homes.

The bomb threats made against HBCUs, she argued, has put fear “in the hearts of young students, faculty and staff, parents and the communities” and “reopen[ed] wounds of those who recall the threats, bombings, burnings and lynchings of the not too distant past.”

Morgan State University President Dr. David K. Wilson, who was a witness during last week’s hearing, emphasized the psychological and emotional toll these threats have had on HBCU students.

“The psychological impact that the continuation of threats are having on our young minds cannot be understated,” said Dr. Wilson. He noted that HBCU students today have witnessed a series of racial violence and traumatic incidents since they were young, from the fatal shooting of unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2012 and other Black teens and young people in their age group.

“And then we had the pandemic, and then George Floyd, and then they were shuttered out of these spaces for a year and a half,” said Wilson. “The students wanted to come to campuses where they could inhale and reacquaint themselves with the emotional well-being that the campus actually provides — and then all of these bomb threats.”

At Morgan State, Dr. Wilson said, “You wouldn’t believe how taxed our counseling center and resources have been just to administer to the incredible needs of these students…We are seeing students who are coming to a brink because they can’t bear it anymore.”

Morgan State University is a public historically black research university in Baltimore. (Photo by Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Dr. Wilson also pointed out that white terror on the campuses of HBCUs is nothing new. “From their inception, they have just simply been targets of domestic terrorism,” he said, pointing to institutions like LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee which was destroyed in 1866 during a race riot and later rebuilt, and Tuskegee University, where Klansmen marched through the campus because they did not want Black physicians to be installed at a Negro war veterans’ hospital in the area.

Southern Poverty Law Center President and CEO Margaret Huang, who was a witness during last week’s hearing, told theGrio that this moment highlights the need for the U.S. government to “improve the response to domestic terrorism, including efforts by the Biden administration and Congress to continue to closely track and assess the nature and magnitude of this problem.”

She added that “current laws on the books must be enforced.”  

As members of Congress seek to push the Domestic Terrorism Act to address domestic terrorism, hate crimes and the link to white supremacy and neo-Nazism, Haung told theGrio that there should also be more funding allocated for “resilience and digital literacy initiatives and government and academic research on best evidenced-based prevention programs.” 

White nationalist demonstrators walk into the entrance of Lee Park surrounded by counter demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Huang said that tech and social media companies also play a role in domestic terrorism and should be “held accountable.”

“It is frighteningly simple for racists and extremists to disseminate propaganda, recruit followers, generate profits, and spread intimidation on the major social media platforms,” she said. 

“Tech companies must create – and enforce – Terms of Service and policies to ensure that social media platforms, payment service providers, and other internet-based services do not enable the funding or amplifying of white supremacist ideas or otherwise provide a safe haven for extremists. ”

While Congress works to address the issue of domestic terrorism led by white supremacist ideology, Democrats and Republicans appeared to clash during last week’s hearing as GOP members of the committee and some of their witnesses focused more on the issue of innercity crime and blamed left-wing rhetoric for the recent spike of violence and killings of police officers. 

“The threats of violence at HBCUs are concerning but we are ignoring the bigger problem,” said Republican Rep. Burgess Owens of Utah, who is one of few Black GOP members in Congress. Burgess called on the committee to hold a hearing on the “correlation between defunding police and the spike of violent crimes.”

Rep. Burgess Owens
Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT) listens during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill April 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill Clark-Pool/Getty Images)

Chairwoman Jackson Lee told theGrio that the arguments made by Republican committee members and their witnesses were a “sheer distraction.”

“Is that relevant to the issue at hand? I was trying to save the lives of students at HBCUs. I was trying to speak against and denounce antisemitism, anti-Muslim and other rhetoric that can result in the loss of life. They were trying to drag up campaign rhetoric that is really not true,” said Jackson Lee.

“Why have they not spoken out against January 6th as police were being beaten almost to death? And why are they averse to talking about the proliferation of guns and continue to pass destructive laws like permit-less carry?”

She added, “I respect my colleagues, but it’s not sincere.”

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