Why ‘white’ supremacists are not always white

Black and brown men committing white supremacist crimes in America should not surprise anyone.

In the early hours that followed yet another mass shooting in the United States – this time targeting an outlet mall in Allen, Texas – rumours and speculation spread about the shooter’s identity and motives. Two competing narratives arose: one of the shooter as a white supremacist, representing another violent racist attack; the other, of a Hispanic gunman, feeding into fears about immigration and violence.

As more information emerged about the gunman, eventually identified as a 33-year-old former US Army recruit named Mauricio Garcia, the two narratives merged. The shooter, while not an illegal immigrant, was indeed Hispanic. He was also a vocal white supremacist who revelled in neo-Nazi paraphernalia and posted messages online about a coming race war. The revelation of a Latino neo-Nazi elicited a host of reactions, from anger to confusion to incredulity.

Kandula was arrested after crashing a U-Haul van into a barrier near 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 that range from Enrique Tarrio, the Afro-Cuban American leader of the Proud Boys, to the Nazi propaganda of the artist formerly known as Kanye West. All point to a real and potentially growing phenomenon: white supremacy is not only perpetuated by white people.

More important than debating whether or not this phenomenon of Black and brown white supremacists is real – it is, despite efforts in conservative circles to paint it as false or ridiculous – is understanding how it has emerged. 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 materialised more recently through modern technology and entertainment.

First, there’s the idea, rarely articulated but often observable, that certain non-white people who espouse white supremacist ideologies will benefit by virtue of their proximity to the privileges and power that come with whiteness in America. NYU Professor Cristina Beltran has coined the term “multiracial whiteness” to describe people like Tarrio who appear to seek to identify with whiteness, not as a racial construct but as an ideology of power and supremacy.

This phenomenon creates strange bedfellows, as white nationalists and non-white alt-right activists end up operating side by side. Despite being the leader of the Proud Boys, Tarrio does not hide his heritage. “I’m pretty brown, I’m Cuban,” he said in an interview, adding that, “There’s nothing white supremacist about me.” Tarrio’s heritage, however, did not stop him from using racist language against Black people on his social media accounts, attending the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville in 2018, or defacing a Black Lives Matter sign in front of a Washington, DC church. His detention for the DC church incident kept him from participating directly in the January 6 insurrection, but he was convicted of several crimes related to organising the Proud Boys’ participation in the assault on Capitol Hill.

Tarrio is not simply an anomaly. The leader of the Portland-based alt-right group Patriot Prayer, Joey Gibson, has an Irish father and Japanese mother, while another prominent leader in the group, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, (who later became affiliated with the Proud Boys as well) is Samoan. This diverse leadership, and public denunciations of white supremacy, have not prevented white nationalists from regularly showing up and supporting their events.

In addition to the allure of white supremacy, many non-white people are being drawn into racist movements through shared antipathy for groups placed 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 useful case in point. Much of Fuentes’ pro-white belief system appears to be rooted in anti-Black prejudice 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 like Fuentes hold a disdain for immigrants, particularly those from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America, who they view as socially and economically undesirable, just as some Black Americans look down upon other Black people whom they see as socially inferior. More generally, the second force behind the production of non-white white supremacists comes through the targeting of marginalised groups in ways that allow some members of racial minority groups to assert their superiority over other marginalised communities, or even other members of their own group.

The processes of radicalisation – from Fox News to online message boards – has ensnared a growing variety of people, mostly disaffected men, not only by touting their own superiority but, more potently, by pointing out to them who they should hate or disdain. These recruits – again, mostly men, usually young – unite over a shared hatred for marginal groups: immigrants, working and poor classes, Black people, LGBTQ individuals, Jews and, perhaps most importantly, women.

As well as explicit neo-Nazi paraphernalia, including swastika tattoos, the Texas mall gunman’s social media presence includes discussions of him being an incel – one of many self-identified “involuntarily celibates”. Fuentes, too, proudly identifies himself as an incel and uses this misogynistic ideology to recruit disaffected young men. The Proud Boys, as the name implies, is a male-only group.

Finally, these old sources of supremacy and hatred have been given new life and subversive power through the rise of a particular brand of internet-enabled discourse and “entertainment”. People like Fuentes have grown up in the era of MAGA, social media and “ironic” racism.

During the early 2000s and particularly the 2010s, the online culture of irony provided convenient cover for genuine racists (not to mention misogynists, homophobes, ableists, and so on) to hide their ideology in plain sight, spreading hate-filled jokes, memes and messages with a wink and a nod. Memes as silly as Pepe the Frog went from harmless to ironically racist to genuinely racist, as actual neo-Nazis used the “joke” of a Nazi cartoon character to spread actual Nazi propaganda. Fuentes himself once noted how useful this tactic is for his movement: “Irony is so important for giving a lot of cover and plausible deniability for our views.”

Purveyors of internet hate, often operating anonymously or from behind carefully crafted online personas, have been able to claim that they are simply pushing back against “political correctness” or “wokeness” or “cancel culture,” all the while normalising hate speech and ideologies that have emboldened unapologetic neo-Nazis and white supremacists to come out into the open.

I’m reminded of a trend some years back in which several popular rap acts briefly chose to appropriate the Confederate flag, wearing it ironically as a denigration of what it stood for. Ye, the musician and fashion designer formerly known as Kanye West, was one of the artists who followed this trend, only to then commercialise it as well. And thus the line between irony and embrace becomes blurred.

Ye’s penchant for brash self-aggrandisement and envelope-pushing stunts – publicly chastising 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 go “death con 3” on Jewish people. He also, notedly, adopted increasingly retrograde views concerning women and stalker-like behaviour towards his own ex-wife.As his antics escalated to promoting “white lives matter” merchandise and praising Hitler, Ye’s remarks were endorsed by far-right and neo-Nazi groups and individuals, including Fuentes himself. Ye’s descent into full-on Nazi fandom was much more idiosyncratic, a mix of iconoclastic artistry, personal trauma and struggles with mental health, all filtered through a massive ego that revels in positive and negative publicity. Yet, by mixing his seemingly sincere 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 was sucked deeper into the whole of racist ideology, it’s no wonder that younger, more marginalised Black and brown men have been drawn into the fold of these hateful communities.

While the age of ironic internet bigotry may have peaked, it may be too late to reverse its impact, as racism, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of hate have come out of the shadows and found allies in mainstream media and politics. And this mainstream acceptance will continue to make ideologies like white supremacy attractive to disaffected individuals in our culture, even some who belong to the very groups that the white nationalists seek to oppress or exclude from American society.

Recognising how white supremacists have broadened their recruitment tactics and expanded their ideological appeal is a necessary step to combating these ever-dangerous and disturbingly expansive hate movements.