Why ‘white’ supremacists are not always white
In the early hours that followed yet another mass shooting across the United States — this time targeting an outlet mall in Allen, Texas — rumors and speculation circulated about the shooter’s identity and motives. Two competing narratives emerged: one of the shooter as a white supremacist, representing yet another violent racist attack; the other, from a Spanish gunman, fuels fears of immigration and violence.
As more information emerged about the shooter, eventually identified as a 33-year-old former U.S. Army recruit named Mauricio Garcia, the two stories merged. The shooter, while not an illegal immigrant, was indeed Hispanic. He was also a vocal white supremacist who reveled in neo-Nazi paraphernalia and posted messages online about a coming race war. The revelation of a Latino neo-Nazi provoked a myriad of reactions, from anger to confusion to disbelief.
That mixture of anger and disbelief was echoed recently when 19-year-old Sai Varshith Kandula was arrested after crashing a U-Haul van into a barrier at the White House while carrying a Nazi flag. Kandula, an Indian American man from Missouri, later discussed with authorities his plan to attack President Biden, and his admiration for Hitler. Add to these incidents a variety of cases ranging from Enrique Tarrio, the Afro-Cuban-American leader of the Proud Boys, to the Nazi propaganda of the artist formerly known as Kanye West. They all point to a real and potentially growing phenomenon: white supremacy is not maintained by whites alone.
More important than debating whether this black-and-brown-white supremacist phenomenon is real — it is, despite efforts in conservative circles to portray it as false or ridiculous — is understanding how it came about. White supremacy perpetrated by non-whites has several related roots, some of which are as old as inequality and oppression in America, and some of which have emerged more recently through modern technology and entertainment.
First, there is the idea, rarely expressed but often perceived, that certain non-white people who espouse white supremacist ideologies will benefit from their proximity to the privilege and power that comes with whiteness in America. NYU professor Cristina Beltran coined the term “multiracial whiteness” to describe people like Tarrio, who seem to identify with whiteness, not as a racial construct, but as an ideology of power and supremacy.
This phenomenon makes for strange bedfellows as white nationalists and non-white alt-right activists operate side by side. Despite being the leader of the Proud Boys, Tarrio makes no secret of his heritage. “I’m pretty brown, I’m Cuban,” he said in an interview, adding, “There’s nothing white supremacist about me.” However, Tarrio’s heritage didn’t stop him from using racist language against black people on his social media accounts, attending the 2018 rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, or defacing a Black Lives Matter sign in front of a church in Washington, D.C. . His detention for the DC church incident prevented him from participating directly in the January 6 riot, but he was convicted of several crimes related to organizing the Proud Boys’ participation in the assault on Capitol Hill.
Tarrio is not just an anomaly. The leader of the Portland-based alt-right group Patriot Prayer, Joey Gibson, has an Irish father and a Japanese mother, while another prominent leader in the group, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, (who later became a member of the Proud Boys) ) is Samoan. This diverse leadership and public denunciations of white supremacy have not stopped white nationalists from regularly showing up and supporting their events.
In addition to the lure of white supremacy, many non-white people are drawn into racist movements by a shared antipathy for groups at the bottom of the social ladder. Nick Fuentes, a 24-year-old Holocaust denier and purveyor of white superiority who has dined with former President Trump and Kanye West, is a case in point. Much of Fuentes’ pro-white belief system appears to be rooted in anti-black prejudices instilled in him by his parents. His white American mother and his father, of mixed American and Mexican descent, still publicly support him and his racist views.
Some conservative Hispanic Americans, such as Fuentes, have a disdain for immigrants, especially those from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America, whom they view as socially and economically undesirable, just as some Black Americans look down on other Black people they perceive as socially consider inferior. More generally, the second force behind the production of nonwhite white supremacists comes from attacking marginalized groups in a way that allows some members of racial minority groups to assert their superiority over other marginalized communities, or even other members of their own group.
The processes of radicalization – from Fox News to online bulletin boards – have trapped a growing variety of people, mostly disaffected men, not only by promoting their own superiority, but, even more, by reminding them who they are. should hate or despise. These recruits – again mostly men, mostly young – unite over a shared hatred of marginalized groups: immigrants, working and poor classes, black people, LGBTQ individuals, Jews and, perhaps most importantly, women.
In addition to explicit neo-Nazi paraphernalia, including swastika tattoos, the gunman’s presence at the Texas mall also includes discussions of him as an incel — one of several self-described “involuntary celibates.” Fuentes, too, proudly identifies as an incel and uses this misogynistic ideology to recruit disgruntled young men. The Proud Boys, as the name implies, is a male-only group.
Finally, these ancient sources of supremacy and hatred have been given new life and subversive power through the emergence of a particular brand of Internet-enabled discourse and “entertainment.” People like Fuentes grew up in the age of MAGA, social media and “ironic” racism.
In the early 2000s and particularly in the 2010s, the online culture of irony provided convenient cover for genuine racists (not to mention misogynists, homophobes, gifted, etc.) to hide their ideology in plain sight, by hate filled jokes, memes and messages with a wink and a nod. Memes as silly as Pepe the Frog went from harmless to tongue-in-cheek racist to genuinely racist as actual neo-Nazis used the “joke” of a Nazi cartoon character to spread actual Nazi propaganda. Fuentes himself once remarked how useful this tactic is for his movement: “Irony is so important to give a lot of cover and plausible deniability to our views.”
Internet hate purveyors, often operating anonymously or from behind carefully curated online personas, have been able to claim they are simply pushing back against “political correctness” or “waking up” or “cancelling culture,” all the while normalizing hate speech and ideologies that unapologetically neo-Nazis and white supremacists have encouraged to come out.
I am reminded of a trend several years ago in which several popular rap acts briefly chose to appropriate the Confederate flag and, ironically, wear it as a disregard for what it stood for. Ye, the musician and fashion designer formerly known as Kanye West, was one of the artists who followed this trend and then commercialized it as well. And so the line between irony and embrace blurs.
Ye’s penchant for brash self-aggrandizement and envelope-pushing stunts—publicly punishing everyone from President George W. Bush to Taylor Swift—eventually grew into a host of increasingly anti-Black and anti-Semitic sentiments. He called slavery “a choice” and threatened to pronounce “death con 3” on Jewish people. He also adopted increasingly retrograde views of women and stalker-like behavior towards his own ex-wife.
As his antics escalated to promoting “white lives matter” merchandise and praising Hitler, Ye’s comments were endorsed by far-right and neo-Nazi groups and individuals, including Fuentes himself. Ye’s descent into full-blown Nazi fandom was much more idiosyncratic, a mix of iconoclastic artistry, personal trauma, and mental health struggles, all filtered through a massive ego that enjoys positive and negative publicity. But by mixing his seemingly heartfelt bigoted beliefs with artistic expression, Ye continued to have defenders even as he descended further down the rabbit hole of Nazi ideology. Watching one of the country’s most successful artists squander his reputation and fortune as he gets sucked deeper into the whole racist ideology, it’s no wonder that younger, more marginalized black and brown men are in the fold of these hateful communities drawn.
While the era of tongue-in-cheek internet bigotry may have reached its peak, it may be too late to reverse its impact as racism, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of hatred have emerged from the shadows and found allies in the mainstream media and politics. And this widespread acceptance will continue to make ideologies such as white supremacy attractive to disgruntled individuals in our culture, even some who belong to the groups that seek to suppress or exclude white nationalists from American society.
Recognizing how white supremacists have broadened their recruiting tactics and increased their ideological appeal is a necessary step in combating these always dangerous and disturbingly extensive hate movements.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.