In the past two weeks, three mass shootings have rocked the United States to its core. First, on July 28, a 19-year-old man shot and killed three people and injured 13 at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California. Then, on August 3, a 21-year-old man shot and killed 22 people and injured 24 at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas. Finally, only hours later, a 24-year-old man shot and killed 10 people and injured 27 in Dayton, Ohio.
Depending on how you define the term, there have either been 255 mass shootings (any shooting in which four or more people are shot) or eight mass shootings (any shooting in a public place in which at least three people are killed) or 17 mass shootings (shootings in which four or more people, not counting the suspect, die by gunshot wounds) in 2019 alone. The definition itself seems almost superfluous by this point. What we know for certain is this: people in public places hear a vehicle backfire and run for their lives. They don’t feel safe at small-town food festivals, big-box grocers, places of worship, or apartment complexes. And it’s adding to our collective anxiety in a measurable way.
A constant plea for gun control legislation — background checks, semi-auto military-style rifle bans, enforcing our current laws — goes ignored by the Senate (or, at least, the Senate Majority Leader) every time this happens. And virtually all of these shootings are committed by men, and often white men who are radicalized in the darkest reaches of the internet and emboldened by some of the most visible people in the country. In fact, when President Donald Trump landed in El Paso on August 7 to address the shooting, demonstrators gathered to protest his presence, while partially blaming him for the violence.
“Let me say this clear and loud: Trump is responsible,” one protester told the crowd. Another protester told Buzzfeed News that Trump’s comments about immigrants “spreads flames of hatred.” Meanwhile, Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris all condemned Trump’s rhetoric as part of the problem.
For his part, the President did draw a hard line in a nationally televised address, stating: “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul.”
Below, we unpack the mass shooting-white supremacy correlation.
What do mass shootings have to do with white supremacy?
While officials are still investigating the motives behind the Gilroy and Dayton shootings, El Paso’s shooter was clear about his intentions: he drove more than nine hours from Allen, Texas to El Paso, a border town whose population is roughly 83 percent Latinx, to go on his spree. Only minutes before he started shooting, he allegedly posted a manifesto to the internet forum 8Chan (favored by radicals and the far right for its lax censorship rules), explaining what he was about to do and why.
The shooter wrote, “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”
These word choices — invasion, replacement, patriotic defense — is the common parlance of white nationalism. While white nationalism (belief in a white-dominated ethno-state) and white supremacy (belief in the superiority of the white race) are two separate belief systems, they often go hand-in-hand. Couched in the El Paso manifesto was language that made it clear that for the shooter, white people are the superior race, and their existence is being threatened. In other words: white nationalism is a part of white supremacy for many right-wing extremists.
The manifesto overtly references the “great replacement” of white people in the U.S., a nod to Renaud Camus’s theory of impending white genocide. (This is also the theory behind chants of “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us” at the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rally.)
The belief that there’s a “Hispanic invasion” of the U.S. is directly connected to the idea that the U.S. is and should remain a white-dominated nation. It’s worth mentioning that this idea is, in fact, a-historical; Texas was part of Mexico up until the Mexican-American War’s end. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe forced Mexico to cede large swaths of the west, making Texas a relatively young part of the U.S. This is to say nothing of the fact that the U.S., as it currently stands, was only formed in the late 18th century; Indigenous groups of the Americas have been here for over 20,000 years, meaning the construct of America as a white-dominated nation (literally built upon the backs of African and Indigenous slaves) is relatively new.