Experts worry new census findings could trigger rise in white supremacist violence

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Experts warn that the threat of violence from right-wing extremist groups is rising.

The U.S. Census Bureau released its data from the 2020 decennial survey last week, which revealed, among other findings, that the white population in the country is declining.

White supremacist and extremist groups on the messaging platform Telegram quickly latched onto the news, ratcheting up their racist rhetoric in an attempt to recruit new followers, prompting experts who track extremist movements to warn that it could lead to an uptick in violence from such groups.

According to the census data, almost all of the population growth over the past decade was among people who identified as Black, Asian, and Latino, while the white population in the United States declined for the first time in history.

In popular extremist and white supremacist channels, that data was shared with racist analysis and a call for supporters to take action. One Telegram channel that has more than 50,000 subscribers posted the data along with a video of a large group of people fighting outside of a shoe store in LA, with the message, "Life is worth less than a free pair of this seasons [sic] shoes to these societal parasites... that doesn't bode well for the West."

Another message posted in a different white supremacist Telegram that has been shared more than 7,500 times warns that "White decline is deliberate policy, not an accident of history. And like any policy it can be changed."

The census data and subsequent reaction it has garnered in far-right circles on the internet has some extremist experts on guard, many warning that it could lead to a surge in violence, particularly race-based hate crimes.

"This has always been their greatest fear," said Daryl Johnson, the former lead analyst for domestic terrorism at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "And I think it’s one of the main drivers behind white supremacist recruitment and violence, the demographic shifting in America."

He added that the "latest census results just reinforce that fear and realization."

"Undoubtedly," he said, "there are going to be people on the far-right that will be agitated and angered by this data and want to do something about it."

Dr. Heidi Beirich, the co-founder and chief strategy officer of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, also fears an uptick in extremist violence in the wake of the census data and said it was a trend the country had already observed over the past five years.

"The fact that these demographics are going to continue in this way, it means we have a serious problem on our hands with millions of Americans who fundamentally disagree with a multicultural, diverse democracy," she said. "And it's going to become a much worse situation."

"I think that the fact that we've seen the attacks on the voting on January 6, the attempts undermine electoral systems — this all part of the freakouts about demographics," she added.

The census data comes as experts already fear threats of increased violence from far-right extremist groups more broadly.

A Department of Homeland Security memo that leaked in early August warned of "increasing but modest" threat of violence from people and groups who believe are still pushing 2020 election conspiracy theories. And a study published on Aug. 6 from the Chicago Project on Security & Threats at the University of Chicago found that nearly 21 million Americans agree that "use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency" and that "the 2020 election was stolen, and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president."

For researchers like Beirich and Johnson, who track extremist movements and analyze chatter in encrypted extremist and white supremacist groups, the census data adds yet another opportunity of recruitment for such groups.

In the past few years, extremist and white supremacist groups have been successful in recruiting supporters from conspiracy theories movements like QAnon, along with anti-mask and anti-vaccine supporters, and other anti-government groups.

With the coronavirus delta variant crippling parts of the country and mask mandates being reinstated, Johnson worries the extremist groups may grow more active.

"It's under Democratic administrations where these groups proliferate," he said. "So, for at least the next four years... we're still gonna see a period of heightened activity."

He added, "It's going to take time to slow the momentum and growth we've seen over the past 10 years. This stuff doesn't stop on a dime."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.