In the wake of a series of high-profile instances of white supremacist violence in the United States, calls to identify such acts as terrorism have surged in national public discourse. Many commentators, however, argue that naming today’s acts of white supremacist violence “terrorism” conceals their kinship with historical modes of enforcing white dominance, instead assimilating them to recent forms of violent opposition to the United States. On this view, reckoning with current white supremacist violence requires that we situate it in continuity with U.S. nation-building rather than foreign strains of anti-American extremism.
In this talk, Dr. Erlenbusch-Anderson shows that this view uncritically accepts the currently dominant concept of terrorism, which presupposes that “terrorism” properly names violence intended to destroy U.S. society. The American history of terrorism, however, includes uses of the term as a means of criticizing white supremacy. The collective memory of racial terrorism, in particular, offers an important resource for conceptualizing terrorism so as to account for current semantic activism around the term. Dr. Erlenbusch-Anderson argues that a reclamation of this conceptual framework offers a reorganized perception of terrorism that tracks grass-roots discourse and enables a more nuanced understanding of the current political moment.