Written by Serie McDougal III
Why do perpetrators of ethnic violence like to tinker around with definitions of their targets’ identities? This happens so much so that the international legal definition of genocide makes special note that perpetrators of such acts sometimes create identity labels for their benefit. In this tradition, the FBI has now created a label that it calls “Black Identity Extremist (BIE)” based on its evaluation of six cases between September 2014 and December 2016 where Black men (in particular) have targeted and killed police officers. An explanation can be found in a leaked FBI report on Black Identity Extremists. It states, “This intelligence assessment focuses on individuals with BIE ideological motivations who have committed targeted, premeditated attacks against law enforcement officers since 2014” (p.3). For Black people, it is hard to dismiss the FBIs long history of using sparse acts of resistance and violence against the state to create broad categories that have allowed them to label Black social movements, organizations, and individuals as ongoing threats to national security, such as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Panther Party (Blackstock, Perkus, & Paul Avrich Collection, 1975). The report traces the trajectory of BIE activity to its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, exemplified by the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Liberation Army, and “Moorish Sovereign Citizen Ideology” and more recently its resurgence in response to the spate of police brutality in 2014. It states, “Convergence of BIE and Moorish Sovereign Citizen Ideology very likely leads to violence against law enforcement officers” (p.4). This framing allows law enforcement to take violent and extreme action against their targets, people they deem are troubling elements of American society. But the question that remains is, what does Black identity do to people of African descent at its higher levels?
Scholars of Black racial identity generally define it as having a sense of pride in one’s collective and individual identity as a person on African descent and a sense of commitment to racial equity, justice, and freedom (Cross, 1971; Cunningham & Regan, 2012). Janet Helms and Thomas Parham (1996) conceptually define Black racial identity as a sense of collective identification based on one’s identity as a Black person. What are the attitudes and behaviors associated with Black racial identity in people of African descent based on the collection and analysis of empirical data? For example, the Racial Identity Attitude Scale (RIAS) uses a five-response agreement scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Racial identity at its upper levels has been found to be related to self-esteem and many other indicators of psychological well-being for Black people.
The FBI, on the other hand, leaves the actual meaning of Black racial identity undefined. One thing that they do mention—which is highly contradicted by social scientific evidence—is the notion that Black racial identity at its higher levels is associated with violence. In sharp contrast to the unscientific claims made in this FBI report, Caldwell, Kohn-Wood, Schmeelk-Cone, Chavous & Zimmerman (2004) investigated the relationship between racial identity as protective factors against violence among African American adults. They found that the safe-guarding effects of racial identity were salient, particularly for men (a race/gender category highlighted by the FBI report). They also argue that the more central race was to their identities, the less violent behaviors Black men engaged in.
It is in the interest of people of African descent to magnify and promote all social programs and practices that lead to positive Black racial identities at high levels. Anti-Black racial violence however, does lead to violence. A prime example of this is how the racialized use of excessive force and extrajudicial killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement officials incites sometimes violent responses. Some Black males respond to racism by engaging in violence and other negative behaviors (Wilson, 1991). Given this empirical data, the notion that engaging in violence is the direct cause of Black racial identity is, in fact, false, and illustrates how Black identity and culture are demonized to sustain racist agendas. This prompts the question: does the FBI rendering of “Black identity extremism” then justify law enforcement’s use of excessive force? This seems to be what the FBI report suggests. What their own data corroborates is that the use of violence is caused by anti-Black racist violence toward Black people, the most common feature of the killings cited in the recent FBI report. Yet, they have chosen to identify Black racial identity as the cause in an effort to disrupt Black racial cohesion because they see it as undermining White power and privilege and the racial injustice that White America has and continues to benefit from.
What again is it that sparks genocidal actors’ fascination with their victims’ identities? There is research conducted in which White American participants generally reacted more negatively toward strongly identified ethnic minorities, and those who identify strongly with their own ethnic identities (Sellers, Shelton & Diener, 2003). The authors of that research suggest that this occurs because Whites see them as rejecting the very status hierarchy that generally privileges Whites. Black people who identify with their Blackness is an existential threat to White supremacy. In the case of BIEs, the FBIs data set is not only unrepresentative, it is simply inaccurate but because of its clout as a government agency, it is positioned to contribute to dominant ideologies and fuel fear of Black communities’ embrace of healthy Black identity development that not only centers culturally relevant ways of being in the world, but also a clear view of the oppressive forces in it.
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