The African American Policy Forum grieves the loss of Nia Wilson and we send our prayers for the recovery of her sister, who was also stabbed during last weekend’s vicious attack. Our hearts go out to the Wilson family, and also to the family of Meshon Cooper and those of unnamed others who have lost their lives to racists who feel entitled to take them.
John Cowell, a 27-year- old white male, has been arrested as the only suspect in Nia’s murder. Police have stated that they cannot conclude that the crime was racially motivated. Cowell’s family has issued a statement that he is mentally unfit. Nia’s death, and those of other Black women who have lost their lives in the increasingly lethal environment in the United States, cry out for active efforts to confront, to count, and to prevent these crimes. Her death is not an isolated incident. The AAPF calls for efforts to challenge the permission to hate that comes from the top, and the conspiracies of denial that prevented our government from publishing information that revealed the growing threat of domestic terrorism. We amplify this call in the statement below.
Black Women and Hate Crimes
Nia Wilson’s life was savagely taken on Sunday evening at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland, California. Both of these developments fit a pattern of assessment that may well underestimate the torrent of racial hate unleashed across the nation and the extent to which Black women are vulnerable to it. The FBI recently released data indicating that hate crimes in the US continue to rise, yet the extent of the problem cannot fully be grasped given the multiple failures of authorities and society as a whole to confront the rising tide of white supremacy. While the influence of President Trump’s coziness with white nationalists has occasionally marshalled concern, equally troubling is the official blind eye towards domestic terrorism and the almost reflexive denial about the real risks it entails. This denial obscures patterns of racial violence that render wide populations vulnerable to hate crimes, including women and girls.
Nia Wilson’s name joins those of other Black women who have lost their lives in circumstances that implicate hate crimes, but that have been characterized as something else. In June 2016, Deborah Pearl, a mother of three, was shot to death by Matthew Ryan Desha following a car collision near Cleveland, Ohio. Last June, Nabra Hassanen, a 17-year-old Black Muslim girl who had just graduated from high school, was abducted, raped, and brutally beaten to death by a motorist, Darwin Martinez Torres, after he had chased down a group of Muslim teenagers. That same month, David Andrew Desper fatally shot 18-year-old Bianca Roberson in the head while attempting to merge his vehicle into her driving lane. None of these killings were classified as hate crimes although the Pearl, Hassanen, and Roberson families respectively believe otherwise. Mental illness and road rage have been offered as a mutually exclusive explanation for these savage attacks.
Alarmingly, such incidents may be occurring far more frequently than the numbers suggest because of a mistaken assumption that mental illness, road rage, or some other factor visciates hate as a motivating factor in these settings. Police departments across the U.S. do not have clear policies on these matters and many officers lack sufficient training to properly categorize bias crimes when they occur. Moreover, crimes against Black women may be especially underreported because anti-Black bias crimes have traditionally been framed as crimes against men. Present day reporting of hate-crimes ignore the unique experiences of women and girls of color, and more broadly, the ways in which hate crimes reflect other forms of bias -- for example, gender identity, religion, sexuality, immigrant status and disability. In fact, the FBI maintains a well-known collection of data on hate crimes against various groups. But rarely does it acknowledge the intersectional dimensions of this type of violence. Accordingly, in 2015, it reported only 32 "multi-bias" incidents out of 5,850 total.
The horrific assaults against Wilson, Pearl, Hassanen, and Roberson remind us that gender has never spared Black women from racial terrorism. Racial hatred knows no gendered boundaries. Eliza Woods and Mary Turner -- two of the more than 200 documented Black women who were lynched -- lost their lives to the same racist bloodlust that drained the life from Emmett Till. This murderous expression of racial hatred extends to Black women in contemporary America. In the Charleston church attack, mass murderer Dylann Roof declared, “you raped our women and are taking over our country” before shooting the oldest victim there -- 87-year-old Susie Jackson -- 11 times. For all the contemporary worshipping of white strongmen by the far right, racist masculinity has never had a problem expressing itself through the senseless murder of defenseless Black women and girls.
Politics and Racial Hate Crimes
African Americans remain the most targeted group for hate crimes, and according to the Department of Justice the overall rate increased by 16% in 2017. The connection between these rates and politics is telling: a recent report revealed that hate crimes more than doubled the day after the 2016 Presidential election and spiked 92% in the following two weeks. In the 34 days following the Trump election, there were 1,094 bias-related incidents around the US with 37 percent of the perpetrators either directly citing Trump, his campaign slogans, or his infamous remarks regarding sexual assault. Yet what is not so obvious is the role of politics in handcuffing the agencies that are responsible for monitoring hate groups and preventing hate crimes.
In 2009, a leaked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Report, Right-Wing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat is Being Ignored warned of the resurgence of right-wing extremist activity. A political backlash ensued. Twenty conservative groups called for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's dismissal and in the wake of political pressure, work related to illuminating violent right-wing extremism was halted. Daryl Johnson, who oversaw the report, saw his unit disbanded. By 2010, there were no intelligence analysts at DHS working on domestic terrorism threats.
The federal government’s abdication of responsibility in this arena extends beyond the abandonment of DHS intelligence. Life After Hate, a group whose founders included former white supremacists who today work to stop hate crimes, saw its $400,000 federal grant rescinded by the Trump administration. The important work of pushing back against violent extremists and the prevention of the recruitment of at-risk youths took a backseat to the Trump Administration’s coddling of those who present a clear and present danger to the peace and well being of millions of people in America.
As we hold the families of those who have lost loved ones to racist violence in our hearts, we must be keen to consider what kind of talk we must give to all of our daughters about the cruelty of a racist and misogynistic world? What kind of eulogies must we give when our talks fail to protect?
It’s time to confront head on the reality that the racist demon that haunts the past has not been cabined there, and has been freed to roam the land once again, destroying lives of sons as well as daughters. We can no longer use mental illness or road rage or other factors as a catch-all denial of hate. We can no longer be swayed by partisan politics that prevent us from meaningfully countering the existential threat of far right extremism, nor overlook the very real forms of hate violence that reflect intersectional vulnerability. Nothing should stand in the way of confronting the real face of terrorism here on our U.S. shores, and the fact that the lives of all of us hang in the balance.