Why do people of color join the ultraright?

Investigating the contradiction

L-R: Enrique Tarrio, a leader of the Proud Boys; Joey Gibson, head of Patriot Prayer; Kene Brian Lazo posing for a selfie on Jan. 6; Gibson’s deputy Tusitala “Tiny” Toese. PHOTOS: Tiffany Von Arnim (Gibson and Toese); Kene Brian Lazo (Lazo) and Peter Duke (Tarrio).
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In the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot in Washington, D.C., a photo of a man holding a walis tambo (Philippine whisk broom) inside the Capitol went viral online among Filipinos. The man was Kene Brian Lazo, a Filipino immigrant who was later charged with multiple felonies.

Upon seeing the South Vietnamese flag in the crowd, some Vietnamese Americans expressed disgust on social media, while others took pride in it.

Earlier, on Aug. 4, 2018, Enrique Tarrio, who identifies as Afro-Cuban and was raised in Miami’s Little Havana, was one of dozens of Black, Latino, Asian, and Asian American men who marched alongside white supremacists in Portland, Oregon.

Tarrio is leader of the Proud Boys, openly misogynist street brawlers who call themselves “Western chauvinists.” Joey Gibson heads Patriot Prayer, a Pacific Northwest group keen on opposing “antifa” (anti-fascists) and leftists. He is half-Japanese and capitalizes on this heritage to promote the group’s “multicultural” agenda. Gibson’s deputy, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, is Samoan.

Tarrio, Gibson, and Toese deny that their organizations are white supremacist. But the groups play a high-profile role in today’s far right.

Participation and leadership in such groups by people of color is not new. In 1994, James J. Johnson, an African American, co-founded a “patriot” outfit called E Pluribus Unum and became a spokesperson for the Ohio Unorganized Militia.

Why are these men drawn to xenophobic groups allied with white supremacy? While people of color are a small minority of the ultraright, their presence at all is inexplicable and unsettling to many.

Actually, this phenomenon reveals the deep class divisions within every racial, ethnic or other social grouping under capitalism. The rise of fascist movements, and the presence of people of color in them, can only be understood in the context of the struggle between classes.

Fascism and small business. Leon Trotsky, Marxist thinker and co-leader of the Russian Revolution, analyzed and agitated against the rise of fascism in the 1920s and ‘30s. Trotsky explained that fascism is a last-ditch attempt by big business in times of economic crisis to crush working class resistance to extreme austerity and repression. Capitalists fund a mass movement made up of small-business people and the desperate unemployed, in an attempt to split them away from the side of the workers.

It is no surprise that Tarrio, Gibson, Kene Lazo and other participants in the ultraright own real or fake business ventures. They believe that their actions are boosting their class status.

Political socialization in homelands. For immigrant people of color, their or their parents’ experiences in countries of origin often play a role. For instance, most older Vietnamese in the U.S. are from South Vietnam and came to the U.S. as refugees. Many brought with them strong anti-communist convictions and oppose social movements for economic and racial justice.

Some immigrants come from authoritarian regimes and equate iron-fist rule with law, order, and prosperity. Most contemporary Filipino migrants in the U.S. grew up during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when conservative views were official dogma taught in schools.

News of the Proud Boys receiving contributions before the Capitol attack from members of the Chinese diaspora featured a woman saying, “You have to understand how we feel — we came from communist China and … we appreciate it here so much.” To such immigrants, being right wing is the path to securing the “American dream.”

But the goal of fascism is to smash the working class and its organizations, starting with those on the bottom, including women, people of color and immigrants. Individual rights and liberties, from free speech and voting rights to reproductive freedom, are the first targets. And, the best interests of small-business people really lie with the workers, because big business will ultimately betray them.

A united front to beat back reaction. United fronts are an urgent necessity for people of color and other oppressed minority groups, especially in this time of the long-term economic decline of capitalism. In this formation, different groups maintain their autonomy but come together for common defense. Radical working-class leadership is needed to ensure that the goals of the front are democratically achieved and not sold out.

Individual communities of color cannot defeat the white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Even people of color together cannot beat them in isolation from their white allies. Together, the targets of fascism are the majority of the working class: people of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ+ folks, Jews, Muslims, unionists, and leftists.

Acting together, they can effectively counter the far right. Examples of united front efforts were a number of community-led anti-fascist actions opposing “White Lives Matter” rallies called across the United States on April 11, 2021. (See “‘White Lives Matter’ rallies shut down and shouted down.”)

An ongoing united front would be a key mechanism of self-defense for people of color against right-wing violence and to build a multiracial working-class movement. This is crucial to everyone’s very survival.

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