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OPINION

The Proud Boys’ Latino connection, explained

We must explore complex racial and ethnic dynamics among Latinos — specifically, the insidious anti-Black bias in the Latinx community.

Chairman of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio (left), wearing a shirt supporting Derek Chauvin, looks on while counterprotesting near the Torch of Friendship, in Miami, where people gathered to remember George Floyd on the one-year anniversary of his murder at the hands of the police officer, on May 25, 2021.CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

The notion that people of color can’t possibly belong to white nationalist hate groups has been exposed as a plain fallacy. Black and brown members of such groups often play the role of “useful idiots,” as others have put it, because they offer the perfect cover to mask these extremist organizations’ latent racism.

Case in point: The leader of the Proud Boys — the far-right, neofascist group at the center of the Jan. 6 committee hearings for its prominent role in the US Capitol insurrection — is Enrique Tarrio, a dark-skinned Cuban American. Tarrio, who faces several federal charges in connection with the Capitol attack, including a rare charge of seditious conspiracy, has repeatedly downplayed the group’s white nationalism and notoriously told an Insider reporter that he denounces white supremacy, fascism, and communism. “I’m pretty brown, I’m Cuban,” Tarrio said. “There’s nothing white supremacist about me.”

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Of course, the Proud Boys’ links to white supremacy activism and violence has been well documented, even prior to the Jan. 6 insurrection. What has yet to be deeply examined is why far-right groups are attractive to Latinos like Tarrio. Why would a person from a marginalized, oppressed group identify with white supremacy ideology?

The go-to explanation is the “Hispanics are not a monolith” mantra, which, while accurate, also feels a tad superficial. Sure, my identity and political views as a Mexican American raised in Mexico but living in Boston for the past two decades are likely to be different from a second-generation Mexican American from McAllen, Texas, or a recently-arrived Venezuelan refugee in Miami. It’s how some of the Proud Boys’ appeal to Latinos in the Miami area has been explained: Cubans and Venezuelans’ fear of communism and socialism made them turn to the Republican Party and, in some cases, drove them to become right-wing activists.

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But to truly dig deep into the connection between white nationalism and Latinos, we must explore complex racial and ethnic dynamics within the Latinx community — specifically, the insidious anti-Black bias.

Tanya Katerí Hernández, a professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, is the author of the upcoming book “Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality,” in which she looks “at the ways Latinos espouse two things simultaneously,” she said in an interview. “One, that [we] are not discriminatory, that we don’t have racism, or at least not the way in which North Americans have racism. And that’s because we are racially evolved and racially mixed. And so there is no white and there is no Black.”

So the conventional thinking goes, “[Latinos] can’t possibly harbor discrimination,” she said. But “embedded within much of our language and much of our actions are a lot of anti-Black, prejudicial attitudes.” Hernández’s research touches on extremism and physical violence but also on the myriad ways Latinos are involved in acts of discrimination against Black people, such as in the real estate market or in the workplace.

While it may still be shocking for people to learn who the leader of the Proud Boys is — a Latino who, as the Capitol attack unfolded, reportedly took credit for it, writing in an encrypted text, “Make no mistake. We did this” — this isn’t the first time that Latinos have been involved in a self-identified, self-professed white supremacist collective, according to Hernández. Other examples of Latinos linked to white nationalist groups: Juan Cadavid, originally from Colombia, took part in pro-Trump violent clashes in Southern California in 2017; Alex Michael Ramos, a Puerto Rican from Georgia who beat a Black man during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, also in 2017; and Nick Fuentes, the young white nationalist influencer of Mexican American descent.

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What drives a non-white person to take part in violence against racial minorities? “What’s the best way to distance yourself from feeling like you’re part of an oppressed group? It’s to align yourself with those who are part of the oppressors,” said Hernández. Additionally, whiteness has been very elastic throughout history, she said. “People who today we think of as white people with Italian American or Irish American ancestry were, at the turn of last century, viewed as non-white. Whiteness sort of expanded to include them.”

Hernández was adamant that Tarrio, Fuentes, and other Latinos are not isolated cases, and warned against viewing them as such because then we, as Latinos, avoid responsibility for addressing pernicious anti-Black attitudes in the Latino community.

“We’re acting as if this Afro identity is something separate, apart from us,” Hernández said, and she’s spot on. To understand how white supremacy continues to be able to operate among Hispanics, it’s crucial to acknowledge Afro-Latino identity within Latinidad. Only then will we have a shot at dismantling it.

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Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.