Mass shootings in the United States are depressingly routine. As are the responses, that are generous on thoughts and prayers and miserly on anything meaningful. But the recent shooting in the mall in Allen, Texas, had an unusual element that confounded many.
The offender in that attack was Mauricio Garcia, who was Latino. Garcia upheld held far-right ideology and conspiracies and a bent for white supremacy. What? White supremacy?
The fact a Latino could adhere to Nazi notions was so difficult to take that some people on the right suggested this must be wrong and a beat-up by the media; the crazier of them suggested, as they always do, it was either faked or orchestrated to make the radical right look bad.
But non-whites being involved in white supremacy, while relatively rare, is certainly not unheard of in the US and indeed around the world, including New Zealand.
Notwithstanding that, the best-known domestic example is actually something of a red herring.
The Mongrel Mob, New Zealand’s largest gang and one dominated by Māori membership has, since its inception in the 1960s, flown the swastika and used Nazi catch cries – notably “seig heil”.
Although this isn’t actually as significant as it seems.
The Mob took the Nazi garb and speech not to identify with racial purity, but purely for its considerable shock value.
New Zealand’s second largest gang, Black Power, did the same, but they dropped it in the late-1970s, as the aching irony proved stronger than the desire to offend.
If this all sounds a little weird and confused, stand by for much more.
I first came across non-white neo-Nazis with genuine white supremacist beliefs when I was several beers deep during a big night at a biker gang clubhouse about 20 years ago.
I met a chap whose father was Pasifika and his mother Pākehā. This bloke began to talk to me about the genius of Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf.
While the risk of getting punched in the face was high, my curiosity was irresistible and so I asked him the obvious: “Mate, you don’t look much like a white supremacist, what the hell are you talking about?”
He told me that he identified only with his mother’s side and that made him white.
These days we may be rather used to self-identification, and if he had identified with his father’s ethnicity I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, but self-identifying as a Nazi was, well, pretty damn curious to me.
But he was far from alone.
When I started studying the white power gangs, I quickly came across the murder of Māori man Hemi Hutley in 1997. Hutley’s murder was undertaken by members of a neo-Nazi gang formed in Christchurch prison call the Fourth Reich. But one of his killers, Neihana Foster, was also part Māori.
There’s no amount of mental gymnastics that makes good sense of that, but there is a rationalisation, it seems.
I interviewed a prominent leader of a number of different New Zealand skinhead gangs and he rationalised non-white members by citing Robert Mathews, a once-prominent leader of an American white nationalist group called The Order: “If it looks white, acts white, and fights white, then it is white.”
These days, in the US, many nationalist groups are actively working to advertise the presence of their non-white members: “See, look at this guy, we’re not racist!”
These groups, the most obvious example of which are the Proud Boys, tend to frame themselves as being about Western culture, rather than race, but behind the scenes are packed with members who just so happen to be ardent white supremacists.
This effort to create plausible deniability may in some part explain how non-white people are lured into such groups. Once they’re in, they find the sense of belonging and purpose that is a primary attraction of these groups generally. And because there are a wide range of wacko ideas in such groups, most members have to ignore one thing or another of other members’ beliefs, and non-white members do the same when it comes to ethnicity.
A colleague of mine, Dr Ben Elley, has done a lot of research into online radicalisation and he and I often discuss the draw toward membership in predominantly white nationalist groups. But the specific element of non-white membership is extremely difficult to explain. The only certain thing, despite the apparent surprise and denial of many, it certainly does exist.
· Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the director of Independent Research Solutions and a sociologist at the University of Canterbury.