It’s been a little more than four months since a mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart left 22 people dead and two dozen more wounded.
I think a lot about the El Paso shooting victims, who ranged in age from 15 to 90. Like me, almost all of those murdered that day had Latino surnames.
I’ve also been preoccupied by the fact that experts say the shooting was the single “deadliest white supremacist attack in the U.S.” in more than 50 years.
Like many in my community, I can’t help but wonder if the growing national prominence and visibility of Latinos could open us to similarly heinous attacks in the future.
Hate crimes against Latinos are not uncommon, but hate crimes of this magnitude targeting Latinos recall an era more than 100 years ago when Texas Rangers, other police and civilians are said to have murdered hundreds, maybe thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, including an 1918 incident in Porvenir, Texas, where 15 men and boys were massacred, according to Refusing to Forget, a group of historians dedicated to documenting a wave of extrajudicial killings along the border mainly between 1910 and 1920.
While hate crimes overall in the United States dipped slightly last year, FBI data shows that the number of hate crimes aimed at people, as opposed to property, rose 12% from 2017 to 2018, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
Notwithstanding Tuesday’s attack on a Jewish market in Jersey City that left three civilians and a police officer dead and last year’s massacre of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, attacks in 2018 against Jews and Muslims were down as compared to 2017, according to the FBI.
Anti-Latino crimes in that same period, however, went from 427 to 485. African Americans, who make up just 12% of the U.S. population, remain the most targeted group in the nation, accounting for 27% of all reported hate crime victims, with more than 900 attacks recorded.
The great majority of domestic extremist-related murders in the United States are committed by white supremacists, said Joanna Mendelson, senior investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism and the keynote speaker at this year’s Torch of Liberty Community Breakfast in Phoenix last month.
Mendelson said 78% of the 50 murders nationally committed by domestic extremists in 2018 were committed by white supremacists.
Whether hate crimes committed by white supremacists are aimed at blacks, Jews, Latinos or immigrants, “the motivation is the same,” said Mendelson, who points to a common sentiment shared by the perpetrators: the fear of replacement and of a “white genocide.”
The alleged killer in the El Paso massacre told police he drove more than 650 miles to the border from a Dallas suburb to defend the United States from what he labeled a “Hispanic invasion” and the “cultural and ethnic replacement” of white people.
White supremacists, said Mendelson, pair the idea of cultural replacement with the belief that anyone who doesn’t conform to their “idealized notion of white people” is evidence of a looming “white genocide.”
“Their ideology is predicated on a desire for the white nation and a worldview that sees immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees as enemies who seek to change their culture,” she said, “as they rail against brown or black people, as well as people of different faiths.”
Part of what I think drives white supremacists’ hatred of Latinos, especially Latino immigrants, is the irrational belief that achieving the so called American Dream is a zero-sum aspiration. The thinking is that if I achieve the American Dream, then you will not.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider that while the Latino community has grown from 3.5% of the U.S. population in 1960 to 18% today, our country’s total population has increased from 181 million to 327 million in that same period.
In short, there are numerically more Latinos and other people of color in the United States today, but there are also a lot more white people. Our share of the American pie may be growing, but the pie is a lot bigger now.
What bothers white supremacists the most, of course, is that the face of American society has changed. Our nation is undoubtedly more diverse.
But to white supremacists “diversity” is code for “white genocide,” said Mendelson.
My answer to that disturbing misconception is that race is an illusion, a social construct, like class and political ideology. Scientists have concluded that race has no biological basis. Once you go beyond superficial physical traits like hair and skin color, our genetic makeup reveals that we’re really not all that different from each other.
For that matter, the human species originated in a region now known as the Afar desert in Eastern Africa, which makes us all, if we reach back far enough, genealogically African.
So, when someone tells me to go back to where I came from, I ask how far do you want me to go? Chicago, where I was born? Mexico? Spain? Or modern-day Ethiopia?
I won’t “go back,” of course, except to visit.
But if there is one thing I would like to replace, it’s the notion that in a country launched by a Declaration of Independence that proclaims “all men are created equal” some of us still have to fear death by hate.
This column first appeared in the Advance’s sister outlet, the Arizona Mirror. Read the column here.