Toward a More United America
Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL), traveled to the White House on September 15 to participate in the United We Stand Summit. The forum featured remarks from President Joe Biden and shed a light on the destructive impact of hate-fueled violence on our democracy and communities, and offered an inclusive, bipartisan vision for a more united America.
This Week at AU spoke with Miller-Idriss, who holds joint appointments in the School of Public Affairs and the School of Education, about her participation in the summit, her research, and what AU’s community of changemakers can do to combat extremism.
Q: How did you feel as you entered the White House and met survivors of hate-fueled violence?
A: It was a truly symbolic location. As we walked to the room where the summit was held, we passed by the new portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama and portraits of other former presidents and first ladies. Many of the people who had been invited to the summit were survivors of hate-fueled violence—people from communities including Buffalo, El Paso, Orlando, and Pittsburgh—who were being honored for their resilience. We [also] heard from people who had lost family members, who were themselves gravely injured. Meeting them and hearing their accounts was very moving.
I felt humbled and honored to help frame the issue, provide research and data, and to communicate what those in the room already knew to the nation via live-stream: that this is a crisis that is impacting the country as a whole.
Q: Why was it important to hold this event now?
A: Hate crimes are at their highest point in 12 years. Violence against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander communities and reports of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Black hate are spiking or breaking records compared to previous years. The data indicates that what the people who gathered at the summit are experiencing in their communities is part of an even bigger national phenomenon.
Q: What did you talk about in your remarks?
A: We were charged to help educate the American public about the trend landscape, the impact of hate-fueled violence, and potential solutions. My colleague, Professor William Braniff from START (the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism) at the University of Maryland presented the data and I discussed how we got here and the impact on communities.
It was incredibly important that people understand that data is indisputable and that—unless you don’t believe in facts, you don’t believe in FBI numbers, you don’t believe in the reporting—there’s no looking away from it. We are at a dangerous point in our country’s history because hate-fueled violence is affecting every community.
Q: What are your takeaways from the summit?
A: It was the first time—and I’ve been working on these issues my whole career and so has Bill—that we have ever seen the issues of hate from both the domestic terrorism side and the hate crime side talked about together. Those have always been kept separate: you have national security folks on the domestic terrorism side and law enforcement—mostly local law enforcement—on the hate crime side. Local acts of individual violence and hate crime create a climate of fear just as much as the big acts that we all hear about in the media.
This was also the first time in my career that the federal panel wasn’t just represented by Attorney General Merrick Garland and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, but also by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the CEO of AmeriCorps who talked about the arts and civic engagement. It is a tremendous leap forward in how we think about, prevent, and combat hate-fueled violence. It is no longer just an issue of banning and arresting but also an issue of civic engagement, resilience, and social cohesion. I have been advocating for that for a long time.
Q: How will the summit inform your work?
A: I think there will be a lot of opportunities to engage at the local and state levels with people who were in the room and to start thinking about how to scale up PERIL’s work as a research lab.
During the summit, DHS announced $20 million worth of grants—one of which went to PERIL. The grant will fund PERIL’s project, Violent Extremism Education and Resilience (VEER). We will partner with media production company, Long Story Short Media, to create evidence-based, short-form video inoculation strategies that aim to interrupt pathways to violent extremism.
I also hope there will be more opportunities to engage in the actual implementation of strategy coming out of the summit. They announced a lot of funding initiatives in the Department of Education, for example, in higher education. There will probably be more funding for communities than for research centers, but I think that means that we’ll start seeing things happen across the country that are in line with the kinds of evidence and actions that PERIL has been hoping to see on the resiliency and the media literacy side of things.
Q: What can AU’s community of changemakers do to help combat political extremism and hate?
A: We have an incredible group of undergrads on our team who won $8,000 in a national competition and have received another $15,000 from AU alumni gifts (supplemented with a matching gift from SPA) to support their work.
Amplifying the evidence and helping to share it is also important. We are turning this year towards trying to develop better strategies for communicating what we already know works. People should expect to hear more from us this year through newsletters, website posts, and updates. Listen, tune in, donate.
Finally, there are lots of opportunities to do this work in your own community. At the summit, for example, I highlighted the role of librarians, who are such important partners in this work. I’m always struck by how ready they are to engage and work to counter misinformation, to think about information literacy. In every community there are people like that who are thinking about how to combat hate.