The El Paso shooting should spur white Americans to reckon with their legacy of violence. Without it, white nationalists will continue onwards.
Another day, another mass shooting. 22 people massacred in the crowded Walmart of Cielo Vista Mall in El Paso, Texas, before which the shooter had released an anti-Latinx manifesto that alluded to a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Another day, another mass shooting, but what is equally to be expected after each such incident is white surprise and shock.
The United States must reckon with gun control, but it must also reckon with white supremacy, its hallmark. White nationalists and white supremacists have been historical perpetrators of the violence and the underlying ideology that we have seen present in the manifestos of many mass shooters.
Before Adolf Hitler made white supremacy a term to be repentant of within white society, eugenics and the preservation of the white race were commonplace topics that received significant resources. Superior by Angela Saini narrates how eugenicists experienced profound respect, prior to the Holocaust — their quest to preserve the sanctity of the white race had been supported by many:
“To define what happened during the war as aberrant — as something that could only have been done by the worst people under the worst circumstances — ignores the bigger truth. This was never a simple story of good versus evil. The well of scientific ideas from which Hitler and others in his regime drew their plans for ‘racial hygiene,’ leading ultimately to genocide, did not originate in Germany alone,” details Saini, “They had been steadily supplied by race scientists for more than a century from all over the world, supported by well-respected intellectuals, aristocrats, political leaders, and women and men of wealth.”
The United States housed a remarkable stronghold for eugenics, which Saini unearths in exhaustive detail: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Restriction League of 1894 (of which Theodore Roosevelt would become a member), the 1907 riots in Bellingham, Washington against Indian immigrants by white immigrants (who deemed that “the Hindu is not a good citizen”), and the 1910 launch of a eugenics record office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York to better understand miscegenation in the country. 1916 witnessed a significant development in the eugenics movement through Madison Grant, an American law graduate, and his novel, The Passing of the Great Race: or The Racial Basis of European History — who purported “a blond, blue-eyed Nordic ‘master race’” and “warned against racial intermixing in the belief that this would damage white racial purity further.”
Adam Sewer of The Atlantic writes, “Grant’s purportedly scientific argument that the exalted ‘Nordic’ race that had founded America was in peril, and all of modern society’s accomplishments along with it, helped catalyze nativist legislators in Congress to pass comprehensive restrictionist immigration policies in the early 1920s. His book went on to become Adolf Hitler’s ‘bible,’ as the führer wrote to tell him.”
Modern-day white nationalists and supremacists are but adherents to old eugenicist pseudo-scientific research and rhetoric. Hitler helped to stigmatize the concepts of “master race” and the corruption of its hygiene thereof, but it continues to exist in the American psyche, as it did before the Holocaust. The Ku Klux Klan, the vicious backlash against the Civil Rights movement, and present-day anti-migrant discourse are mirroring iterations of widespread white supremacy.
El Paso is one of many intersections, along the U.S. border, of the anti-immigrant or anti-migrant political discourse and the migration crisis itself. In April of 2016, I co-lead an indirect service trip to El Paso, Texas, as a university student. We did not involve ourselves in direct service, because we were unskilled, but we did seek to learn of the migration crisis — why has xenophobic rhetoric become more and more brazen? Mexicans are “rapists,” and there is an “invasion” of “illegal aliens” that we must be attentive of at the border — this had been what the then-presidential nominee Trump continued to spew, which saturated day to day media and political discourse.
El Paso presented a rightfully more complex perspective to the crisis. The growth of ICE and Center for Border Patrol (CBP) from non-existent government agencies to highly funded machines of state violence after September 11, 2001, in which unqualified candidates became officers (neither ICE nor CBP require a GED), was more a reflection of the xenophobia characteristic to the United States than it had been a measure of security.
As a part of the trip, we, unfortunately, visited an ICE center itself. It nauseated me. The officer would A) try to explain that he disagreed with illegal border crossings and suggested that migrants should instead rely on more legal options, but then B) state that it can take nearly 100 years to receive a permit to live legally in the United States. The officer would A) try to disagree with Trump’s rhetoric, but then B) present an ICE informational video that was a gross summary of Trump’s stereotypes (who were implied to be gang members in jeeps or bikes jetting toward the border, guns firing, cars crashing, etc. juxtaposed with the absolute necessity of ICE to furbish safety). He even displayed a graph, which indicated a relatively low immigration rate, but insisted that ICE, CBP, and their detention centers are vital to the protection of the country. It was a dance that I have seen in many white people before — the attempt to reduce the racism of X action, the exuberant efforts to distance themselves and each other of the term, “racist,” and in the end, the continuation of white supremacy.
That ICE officer is a derivative of white surprise or shock because his psyche is so assured that he is not a direct component of or a beneficiary to white supremacy. His involvement in a racist agency is not racist, but necessary, just as a common white person’s involvement in many racist systems is not racist, according to them. He is deep in a denial that is both deadly, since it allows for agencies like CBP and ICE to exist without meaningful official scrutiny, and commonplace. Racism, like white supremacy, exists on a spectrum. You do not have to be the El Paso shooter to be a racist. To be xenophobic. Likely, if you are a white person, you are a figure in the very system that bred the El Paso shooter — that is a truth that you must swallow.
White Americans exist is a perpetual state of surprise or shock, when mass shootings triggered by nationalist and supremacist beliefs occur. The rejection of their own positioning in the larger white supremacy leads to historical amnesia of the United States and its entrenched roots with or even affinity of the ideology that the El Paso shooter proclaimed in his manifesto. White supremacy infantilizes white people, like the El Paso shooter, as it does their intentions. White people can never be just racist. White men can never be terrorizers and agents of the white supremacist state. They have to be a “little shy” or a “little closed off.” Their racism is one of minimal consequence, and their racism has excuses that are deemed worthy of a listening ear.
America is not newly racist or xenophobic. It has always been. Accountability is oppression to the privileged, and what we see today is not an unfounded wave of racism and xenophobia. What we see is what has always existed, except that the oppressor has taken to imposing their will with a semi-automatic rifle.
So, no — the shooter and his violence is not a surprise. His white supremacy is not a mental illness. He is not a once closed off suburban teenager that now requires public empathy. He is a racist, and he is a xenophobe. He is also the embodiment of white, settler-colonial violence existing within the same framework as the U.S. government — emboldened by a history that has time in and time out supported his ideology.