The World That Made the El Paso Mass Shooter

The wealthy white suburbs that the El Paso shooter called home have long been a hotbed for xenophobia and racism. He was an extreme but predictable expression of homegrown, mainstream Texas nativism.

People gather near the "El Paso Strong" mural painted by artists Gabe Vasquez and Justin Martinez following the mass shooting at Walmart, which killed 22 people, on August 9, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

After the August 3 mass shooting in El Paso that left twenty-two dead and twenty-four injured, Dan Patrick, the right-wing-radio-host-turned-Texas-lieutenant-governor, offered a glib explanation for what turned Patrick Crusius, the twenty-one-year-old who drove ten hours from his home in the Dallas–Fort Worth area to an El Paso Walmart in hopes of slaughtering the highest number of Mexican immigrants possible, into a mass murderer. It was the lack of school prayer and the popularity of violent video games, Patrick insisted. “We’ve always had guns, always had evil, but I see a video game industry that teaches young people to kill,” he said on Fox and Friends the next day, as the nation reeled from massacres not just in El Paso, but also in Dayton, Ohio.

For self-styled “pro–Second Amendment” politicians like Patrick, who in 2018 received an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, the focus on Call of Duty and other shoot-’em-up entertainment certainly diverted attention from the state’s Wild West–like gun laws. In Texas, handguns can be carried openly or concealed in most public places. The AK-47-style weapon Crusius used in his spree is legal in the state. And Texas’s lax gun regulations will become even looser on September 1, when gun owners will be able to carry concealed weapons into churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship, and without a license for up to forty-eight hours anywhere under a mandatory evacuation order following a natural disaster. (In spite of all that legally permitted firepower, Texas recorded 434.4 violent crimes per 100,000 persons in 2017, seventeenth-highest in the country and outranked only by states with similar gun laws.)

Scapegoating video games shifts the focus not only from the state’s gun culture, but from another part of the mental and cultural landscape Crusius inhabited: the xenophobia and bigotry of Texas politics, particularly in its rich white suburbs. In the online “manifesto” posted shortly before his rampage, Crusius wrote: “In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. 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.”

Growing up in Collin County, Crusius wouldn’t have had to search to find a master class in xenophobia and white supremacy. From the history books to political pronouncements, the resident of Allen, Texas, would have heard paranoid denunciations of sharia law, racist condemnations of Mexicans, and panicked warnings about the accelerating replacement of Anglos with foreigners.

Racism in the Lone Star State

For generations, Texans have been taught in their schools and their public history sites the dangers supposedly posed by Mexicans and Mexican Americans. The Texan origin myth centers in part on tales about the massacre of 445 Anglo insurrectionaries after the Battle of Goliad in southeast Texas and a small number of survivors of the Battle of the Alamo in the Texas Revolution of 1835–36. Those incidents were used to justify the butchering of some 650 Mexican soldiers, most of whom had already surrendered, after the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive engagement in the revolution.

Racial panic seized Anglos in the state again during an upsurge of immigration during the 1910–1920 Mexican Revolution, and as white cotton growers in Texas increasingly exploited Mexican sharecroppers as a labor force. The Latino community, mostly born in Mexico, accounted for 12 percent of the state’s total population by 1930 and up to 92 percent in the Rio Grande Valley. Sediciosos in Texas sought to reclaim the state from the Anglo imperialism of the 1830s and 1840s, and began raids on South Texas ranches, railroad lines, and other infrastructure that, according to historian Benjamin Heber Johnson, killed dozens of Anglo farmers and drove them off of their properties. Between 1915 and 1920, fueled by anger at sediciosos, Anglos launched an anti-Mexican pogrom that killed “hundreds, possibly thousands.”

Well into the 1950s, Texas students learned about their state’s past in part from a cartoon series called Texas History Movies that whitewashed history. Anglo imperialists, some of whom arrived in Texas weeks before the 1835–36 revolution, sought to overthrow Mexican sovereignty so they could extend slavery. Texas History Movies, however, portrayed them as Texas’s “defenders” and derided the Mexicans as “invaders” of their own country. Students were informed that Mexican soldiers in the Texas Revolution were cowardly, lazy, subservient to tyranny, and gleeful murderers of prisoners of war.

The Dallas area was a hotbed of such sentiments. Justin Kimball, Dallas’s school superintendent from 1914 to 1924, wrote a book in 1927 titled Our City – Dallas: A Community Civics that called for the clearance of African-American and Latino “slums” in the city. He argued that Mexicans and Mexican Americans posed a threat to white health and safety, describing Mexicans as swarming the city. The Latinos of Dallas were outsiders with no long-term interest in the welfare of the city, he claimed, and they represented a disease on the local body politic.

“Most of the Mexicans who live in Dallas are not American citizens, do not speak English, do not expect to remain in Dallas or the United States long, [and] are unaccustomed to our conditions of life and housing,” he wrote. “They will accept conditions of housing to which no other people in our city or state will submit . . . Each such congested, overcrowded, unhealthful center is like a canker or eating sore on our fair city. The rest of our city can no more live and grow and prosper in such a condition, than our body can be well when it has an angry, bleeding, inflamed sore on some part of it.”

The Suburban Explosion

The city of Allen that Crusius called home, and the other once-rural suburbs ringing Dallas and Fort Worth, became major urban centers of their own in part because of xenophobia and racism. The boom in population and wealth began in the 1970s, as de jure Jim Crow crumbled in the region’s two major cities. Even as a Dallas school desegregation case lumbered on for four decades in the federal courts, and after an uprising in downtown Dallas in 1973 following the police murder of a twelve-year-old Latino boy falsely accused of breaking into a gas station, white residents sought refuge in neighboring cities like Allen, Plano, Garland, Richardson, Irving, and Arlington. About one hundred thousand Dallas residents fled the city for the suburbs between 1960 and 1973. A 1976 federal court order mandating school busing to achieve desegregation in Dallas schools prompted still more white departures from the urban core.

The white-flight émigrés brought with them their conservative politics and one of its central obsessions — low taxes. As Dallas and Fort Worth became poorer, blacker, and browner from the 1970s to the early 2000s, the suburbs became white, affluent tax havens. And they just kept growing. The entire Dallas–Fort Worth area has exploded in size, and, since 2016, two cities within minutes of Allen, Frisco and McKinney, ranked as two of the fastest growing towns and cities in the United States. Frisco was number one in growth nationally in 2016 and 2017. Numerous other Dallas-area suburbs, including Allen, Carrollton, Garland, Plano, and Richardson, have all seen population increases of twenty thousand since 2000.

Capital has followed the white diaspora. Since the 1970s, corporate giants like the Dallas Cowboys, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Ericsson, ExxonMobil, Frito-Lay, Nokia, Texas Instruments, and Toyota North America have made the Dallas suburbs home. Whites may have fled the inner city to prevent their children from attending schools with African-American and Latino students, but the business tax incentives these cities implemented, and the proximity of these suburbs to a city still possessing international cachet, drew workers from all over the world who increasingly were non-white. In one white-flight suburb north of Dallas, the city of Plano, nearly 20 percent of the population is Asian, including many well-educated engineers and other professionals from Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Crusius’s hometown of Allen saw a tripling of the Latino population, a 262 percent jump in the Asian population, and a 524 percent increase in the number of African Americans since 2000.

Suburban Xenophobia

Allen is rich. The median income is nearly $110,000 a year, 75 percent higher than that of the Dallas–Fort Worth area as a whole. Children grow up in an atmosphere where the accumulation of greater wealth becomes an expectation, and poverty is seen as a sign of defect. Added to that Social Darwinism, which starkly divides the population into winners and losers, is the toxic racist rhetoric of a number of political leaders. Many of the wealthiest in Collin County may have welcomed international investment, but they have decidedly mixed feelings about the increasingly multiracial and diverse workforce that came with it.

Since 2015, Crusius’s elders have repeatedly sounded the alarm about an “invasion” that the El Paso killer also warned about in his online essay. Animated by conspiracy theories about Muslim infiltration in America, state representative Jeff Leach, a Republican whose district includes Allen, introduced an anti-sharia bill in 2015 forbidding Texas courts from favoring foreign law over American legal precedents when making judicial decisions. While Leach’s legislation failed, a similar bill he coauthored in 2017 passed and was signed by governor Greg Abbott.

In nearby Irving, mayor Beth Van Duyne pushed the city council to pass a resolution supporting Leach’s original bill in March 2015 while falsely claiming that a mosque in the city had established a sharia tribunal that was “bypassing American courts” and using Muslim law to oppress women. Later that year, Irving police arrested Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim of Sudanese descent, after the fourteen-year-old brought a digital clock built as a personal science project to MacArthur High School. Teachers and school administrators panicked that the harmless device was a bomb. (They later dropped the charges.)

In November 2015, masked members of a local hate group, the Bureau of American-Islamic Relations (BAIR), brandished guns as they followed worshippers on their way to the Islamic Center of Irving. The group’s leader posted online the names and addresses “of every Muslim and Muslim sympathizer that stood up for . . . Sharia tribunals in Irving.” On December 12, heavily armed BAIR protesters picketed outside of a mosque in Richardson, north of Dallas and just twelve miles from Allen. Without foundation, the BAIR picketers accused the Richardson mosque of having ties to Hamas, the fundamentalist Palestinian resistance group that the US government considers a terrorist organization. The anti-Muslim activists also warned against allowing Syrian refugees into the United States because they would supposedly establish a terrorist beachhead.

As Crusius reached the end of his high school years, some adults in his community were panicking about a planned Muslim cemetery. “If I had my way, I would outlaw it [Islam] in America,” one Farmersville resident, Jack Hawkins, declared at a meeting about the proposed project. “And I would tear down every mosque that was in this country.” Pastor David Meeks of Bethlehem Baptist Church called Islam a “quasi-pseudo religion,” and warned that the cemetery would provide an entrée for radical Islam in Farmersville. Some claimed Muslim corpses would contaminate the local water supply. Other angry townspeople threatened to pour pigs’ blood on gravesites and scatter pigs’ heads at the final resting place, should it ever open. (Facing a federal lawsuit, on September 20, 2018, the city council, after three contentious years, finally approved the plans and allowed the Islamic Association to move ahead with purchasing the land needed for the graveyard.)

One Texas politician, US Rep. Louie Gohmert, has explicitly tied the threat of Muslim extremism to Mexican immigration. In 2010, Gohmert, a Republican from the East Texas town of Tyler, claimed that Muslim sympathizers in Mexico were deliberately breeding future terrorists in the United States so their citizenship would ease their entry into the country. Citing an unnamed “retired FBI agent,” Gohmert said in a speech from the floor of Congress that “it appeared they would have young women who became pregnant [and] would get them into the United States to have a baby. They wouldn’t even have to pay anything for the baby. And then they would return back where they could be raised and coddled as future terrorists. And then one day, twenty, thirty years down the road, they can be sent in to help destroy our way of life.”

A Predictable Product

In 2014, phobia about immigrants imposing Muslim religious laws, carrying diseases, and bringing with them a reign of rape and murder boiled over in Crusius’s home county. Collin County commissioner Mark Reid warned that residents faced an “illegal immigrant tsunami” that would bring “communicable diseases” to the area. One resident anticipated the language of Crusius’s 2019 manifesto. “What we see is not immigration, but an invasion, a deliberate invasion,” resident Barbara Harliss said at a 2014 County Commissioner’s meeting.

Four years later, state attorney general Ken Paxton, who lives in McKinney, next door to Allen, tried to whip up hysteria about Latino criminals, falsely claiming on Fox News that illegal immigrants had committed six hundred thousand crimes in Texas since 2011, including 1,200 homicides, and that the undocumented had operated an extensive human trafficking epidemic. (According to Politifact, undocumented people had 114,000 total convictions in the timespan, most for nonviolent offenses, and had just 229 homicide convictions.) Just forty-two days before the El Paso massacre, Texas senator John Cornyn tweeted, “Texas gained almost nine Hispanic residents for every additional white resident last year.”

Whatever their intentions, Crusius learned from his parents’ and grandparents’ generation that the time had come to make an Alamo-like stand against a supposed racial onslaught. If he thought that “America is rotting from the inside-out” because of immigration, he found plenty of credence for his xenophobic views in mainstream Texas society.

In the aftermath of the massacre, El Paso County district attorney Jaime Esparza said of his community, “This is not us.” Crusius’s rage, fear, racism, and even violence, however, have echoed across Texas history. The white panic he expressed has long found sanction in the Texas establishment. Texas culture taught Crusius xenophobia. Texas politicians incited him. Texas gun laws placed weapons of mass destruction in his hands.

The truth is, Patrick Crusius was a sadly predictable product of the Lone Star State — and particularly its wealthy Dallas suburbs — in 2019.