Tuesday, 21 May 2024

Opinion | The Myth of the Lone Wolf Latino

The alleged shooter in last weekend’s massacre at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas — which left eight people dead and at least seven injured — wore a vest inscribed with the letters RWDS, short for Right Wing Death Squad, and had tattoos of a swastika and an S.S. lightning bolt insignia.

He was also Latino, a fact that has bewildered some people following this tragedy.

But Latino participation in extremist political projects has a long history in the United States, going back to the John Birch Society. And with the rise of digital organizing in recent years, Latino involvement in the far-right movement is in fact growing. We must understand the alleged shooter in Allen within this context, or else we risk seeing him as a lone wolf rather than as a member of a growing and dangerous movement that will require focused attention to defeat.

One notable example of Latino involvement in far-right racist politics can be found in the early 1950s, also in the Dallas area. Pete Garcia was working with the South Dallas Adjustment League to prevent Black Texans from moving into the community. Mr. Garcia, a 26-year-old machinist, placed “For Whites Only” signs in the yards of white neighborhoods. Along with other members of the S.D.A.L., he menaced a white man who threatened to sell a home in a white neighborhood to a Black family, and he was indicted on a charge of bombing the home of another Black family who had dared to purchase a home in a white neighborhood.

Elzina Shelton, one of the residents of the house that was bombed, recalled: “The smell was horrible. We knew it was dynamite.” She added, “We weren’t totally unexpecting it, knowing how racist these white people were in Dallas.” Mr. Garcia was eventually acquitted.

My own research into Latino participation on the far right began after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in 2012. In the days following Mr. Martin’s killing, news outlets reported that Mr. Zimmerman’s father, Robert Zimmerman, defended his son against accusations of racism by noting that he was a “Spanish-speaking minority.” Even after the revelation of his Hispanic ancestry, Mr. Zimmerman quickly became a darling of the far right, finding defenders from David Duke, the former leader of the K.K.K., to the radio host Rush Limbaugh.

There were echoes of Mr. Zimmerman’s defense from Alex Michael Ramos, who was charged with beating a Black counterprotester at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. Mr. Ramos defended himself against charges of racism by saying, through a mouthful of expletives, that he was “Spanish.”

Defenders of Mr. Ramos and Mr. Zimmerman would have us believe that Hispanic identity inoculates them against accusations of racism. There are at least two issues with that logic.

First, as the legal scholar Tanya Katerí Hernández’s work shows, there is a long and often violent history of anti-Black racism within the Latino community. If Mr. Ramos and Mr. Garcia are extreme, their beliefs are connected to ideas common in much of the Latino community.

Second, being white and being Latino are not mutually exclusive. It’s true, though, that the question of whether we should consider Latino as a race or as an ethnicity remains hotly debated. For some, the use of Latino as a racial category — which consolidates enormous racial diversity under an imagined “mestizo” (racially mixed) Latino identity — comes at the expense of representation for Black Latinos and Indigenous people. In consolidating, critics argue, it erases. For others, decades of transformative Latino social movements suggest that the shared experiences of discrimination bound together a diverse community in struggle, and still can today.

In any case, the racial diversity within the category of Latino certainly seems to be on display in recent events. Two of the highest profile Latinos on the far right are Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of the Proud Boys, who was recently charged with seditious conspiracy for his involvement in the events of Jan. 6, and Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist provocateur who made headlines in the fall for having dinner at Mar-a-Lago with former President Donald Trump and Kanye West. While both might be cast as Latino, Mr. Tarrio, who is Afro Cuban, and Mr. Fuentes, who has Mexican ancestry, likely have had different racial experiences of the world.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, the story of Latino political alignment has largely been about the consolidation of young Latino voters on the left. Latino voters contributed to Democratic victories in key battleground states like Nevada and Arizona. But rampant misinformation across platforms such as WhatsApp and long-held racism in the Latino community are leading people to the far right. Agents of white supremacy can come in more than one shade, creating an increasingly multiracial coalition.

This small but growing minority of Latinos engaged in right-wing and white supremacist extremism is important to understand. If our visions of white supremacist and far-right violence only include white actors, then we are hobbled in our ability to understand and limit the spread of these deadly ideologies.

Until we can understand the way these ideologies have long animated parts of Latino communities, we are doomed to be surprised again and again.

Cecilia Márquez is the Hunt family assistant professor of history at Duke University.

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