A crew of GBI officers in tactical gear next to a line of armored vehicles.

The Racial Disparities in Counterterrorism

After the insurrection at the Capitol in January 2021, the Biden administration announced it was expanding its counterterrorism response. They pledged to work more closely with law enforcement agencies to identify and track threats, collaborate with tech platforms to “eliminate” terrorist content online, and implement enhanced screening to identify threats (PBS). Although some people were pleased to see the White House actively address the role of white supremacist terrorism, many cautioned that expanding the existing counterterrorism practices may only further harm communities of color.

White extremism has always caused terror in the United States. In many ways, it’s what it’s been built upon. From the violence of enslavement to public lynchings to the forced removal of Native people from their lands to the internment of Japanese Americans, our history is rich with acts of terror with the sole intent of protecting white supremacy. White supremacy terrorism is not new. But it took until the insurrection at the Capitol for the White House to state that white supremacist groups and anti-government militias pose the highest risk (PBS).


• Follow Just Security and the ACLU to read the latest on counterterrorism.

• Follow communications directors like Lea Kayali and human rights attorneys like Diala Shamas to learn more about the role language plays in these acts of white violence.

• Consider: How do you hear the word “terrorist” used in conversations today? How are they depicted in the media? 

Consequently, most of our current counterterrorism practices were designed to target communities of color and non-citizens (from non-white countries, in particular). For example, the government watch list includes over one million people. But they’re disproportionately Muslim or an immigrant, which fuels distrust within the community and further stigmatizes them. Although it’s said there are “robust” rules for adding and removing people from the watchlist, it’s much more nebulous in practice. It takes forever to get your name cleared, and agents will often use the watchlist as a fear tactic to force compliance from vulnerable people (ACLU).

There are also surveillance practices that unfairly scrutinize marginalized communities. The Biden Administration has been adding and expanding programs that watch conversations across social media platforms, especially for non-citizens. Government officials are gathering data about an individual’s friends, shopping and dining habits, locations visited, and the caliber of conversations that they’re having – whether they’re a suspected terrorist or not (ACLU). These practices can be used to deport someone, charge them with a crime, add them to a watchlist, or even deny them a visa or citizenship. We see this bias beyond social media surveillance, too. Consider how only certain protests are targeted for surveillance, or how connected doorbells are used to unfairly target people of color. These practices will likely become more dangerous as facial recognition AI continues to make false correlations.

Because of this, many advocates are wary of even using the phrase “terrorism” as a blanket statement. There’s already a clear stereotype behind the word, which is discriminatory and misleading. For an article she wrote for the ARD back in 2021, Shivani Persad interviewed Lea Kayali, a Palestinian community organizer and digital communications professional for the ACLU, who said the following: 

“The entire framework of terrorism is really problematic. It’s understandable that people want to describe the feeling of being terrorized [on January 6]. There’s no question that the people out there were clearly trying to terrorize as part of their mission.” But she cautions us away from the terrorism framework because the definition of terrorism is malleable and vague. “Vague language doesn’t invite good policy. When you create policy on vague definitions it invites law enforcement discretion. It actually provides ammunition to systems of policing and law enforcement.”

Some research suggests that counterterrorism programs, as of now, have not deterred violent extremism at all (Brennan Center). The DOJ was recently audited on its response to domestic terrorism, and the findings show that the program needs consistency and care (Just Security). But tweaking policies is only the start. Ideally, we would strip the entire system and start anew, placing white supremacy in the crosshairs instead of using white supremacist views to build it. 


• The Biden administration pledged to increase its counterterrorism efforts in January 2021. Critics warn that such measures may further harm communities of color, who have been historically over-targeted by counterterrorism programs.

• Most counterterrorism practices have been designed to disproportionately target marginalized communities, including the federal watchlist and social media surveillance.

• Advocacy groups caution against the usage of the term “terrorism” due to its inherent stereotypes and vagueness, which may lead to discretionary enforcement. 

1988 1310 Nicole Cardoza

Nicole Cardoza

Nicole is an entrepreneur, author, investor, speaker and magician passionate about reclaiming our right to be well.

All stories by : Nicole Cardoza
Start Typing
%d bloggers like this: