A racist ideology seeping from the internet's fringes into the mainstream is being investigated as a motivating factor in the supermarket shooting that killed 10 people in Buffalo, New York. Most of the victims were Black.
Ideas from the “great replacement theory" filled a racist screed supposedly posted online by the white 18-year-old accused of targeting Black people in Saturday's rampage. Authorities were still working to confirm its authenticity.
Certainly, there was no mistaking the racist intent of the shooter.
While experts in far-right extremism have advised against spotlighting breadcrumb terms like the racist ideology that inspired the Buffalo gunman in order to avoid further disseminating dangerous ideas, it is important to clarify the connection between these conspiracy theories and rising attacks fueled by such anti-immigration rhetoric.
WHAT IS THE ‘GREAT REPLACEMENT THEORY'?
Simply put, the conspiracy theory says there's a plot to diminish the influence of white people.
Believers say this goal is being achieved both through the immigration of nonwhite people into societies that have largely been dominated by white people, as well as through simple demographics, with white people having lower birth rates than other populations.
The conspiracy theory's more racist adherents believe Jews are behind the so-called replacement plan: White nationalists marching at a Charlottesville, Virginia, rally that turned deadly in 2017 chanted “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”
A more mainstream view in the U.S. baselessly suggests Democrats are encouraging immigration from Latin America so more like-minded potential voters replace “traditional” Americans, says Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism.
WHAT ARE THIS CONSPIRACY THEORY'S ORIGINS?
How long has racism existed? Broadly speaking, the roots of this “theory” are that deep. In the U.S., you can point to efforts to intimidate and discourage Black people from voting — or, in antagonists' view, “replacing” white voters at the polls — that date to the Reconstruction era, after the 15th Amendment made clear suffrage couldn't be restricted on account of race.
In the modern era, most experts point to two influential books. “The Turner Diaries,” a 1978 novel written by William Luther Pierce under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald, is about a violent revolution in the United States with a race war that leads to the extermination of nonwhites.
The FBI called it a “bible of the racist right,” says Kurt Braddock, an American University professor and researcher at the Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab.
Renaud Camus, a French writer, published a 2011 book claiming that Europe was being invaded by Black and brown immigrants from Africa. He called the book “Le Grand Remplacement,” and a conspiracy's name was born.
WHO ARE THE REPLACEMENT THEORY ADHERENTS?
To some of the more extreme believers, certain white supremacist mass killers — at a Norway summer camp in 2011, two Christchurch, New Zealand, mosques in 2019, a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2017 — are considered saints, Pitcavage says.
Those “accelerationist white supremacists” believe small societal changes won't achieve much, so the only option is tearing down society, he says.
The Buffalo shooter’s purported written diatribe and some of the methods indicate he closely studied the Christchurch shooter — particularly the effort to livestream his rampage. According to apparent screenshots from the Buffalo broadcast, the shooter inscribed the number 14 on his gun, which Pitcavage says is shorthand for a 14-word white supremacist slogan.
A written declaration by the Christchurch shooter was widely spread online. If the message attributed to the Buffalo shooter proves authentic, it's designed to also spread his philosophy and methods to a large audience.
IS THE THEORY MAKING WIDER INROADS?
While more virulent forms of racism are widely abhorred, experts are concerned about extreme views nonetheless becoming mainstream.
In a poll released last week, The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about 1 in 3 Americans believe an effort is underway to replace U.S.-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gain.
On a regular basis, many adherents to the more extreme versions of the “great replacement” theory converse through encrypted apps online. They tend to be careful. They know they’re being watched.
“They are very clever,” Braddock says. “They don’t make overt calls to arms.”
WHO'S TALKING UP THIS THEORY?
In particular, Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ most popular personality, has pushed false views that are more easily embraced by some white people who are concerned about a loss of their political and social power.
“I know that the left and all the gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World,” he said on his show last year. “But they become hysterical because that's what's happening, actually, let's just say it. That's true.”
A study of five years' worth of Carlson's show by The New York Times found 400 instances where he talked about Democratic politicians and others seeking to force demographic change through immigration.
Fox News defended the host, pointing to repeated statements that Carlson has made denouncing political violence of all kinds.
The attention paid by many Republican politicians to what they see as a leaky southern border along the United States has been interpreted, at least by some, as a nod to the concern of white people who worry about being “replaced.”
House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik's campaign committee was criticized last year for an advertisement that said “radical Democrats” were planning a “permanent election insurrection” by granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants who would create a permanent liberal majority in Washington. Stefanik represents a New York district.
Pitcavage says he's concerned about the message Carlson and supporters are sending: “It actually introduces the ‘great replacement theory’ to a conservative audience in an easier-to-swallow pill."