white supremacy

What Is Replacement Theory?

A gunman pointed to “replacement theory” in explaining his decision to open fire at a Buffalo supermarket. Photo: Matt Rourke/AP/Shutterstock

A white-supremacist gunman killed ten people and injured three others Saturday afternoon, opening fire at a Buffalo supermarket in a premeditated attack. Suspect Payton Gendron, 18, picked a Tops Friendly Market in a predominantly Black part of the city. Armed with an AR-15 and covered in body armor, he reportedly began shooting people as soon as he got out of his car, briefly livestreaming the massacre on Twitch via a GoPro attached to his helmet. (Twitch says it stopped the stream less than two minutes in.) More than half of the people he murdered were seniors, 65 and older, doing their shopping. For the most part, they were Black.

As for how investigators know Gendron to be a white supremacist, his digital footprint offers a few clues. According to the Associated Press, video footage suggests he specifically avoided shooting white people in the store: “At one point, he trains his weapon on a white person cowering behind a checkout counter, but says ‘Sorry!’ and doesn’t shoot.” And then there is the 180-page manifesto Gendron published online ahead of the meticulously planned attack, vowing to — as the New York Times summarized — “kill as many Black people as possible.” The document reportedly catalogues Gendron’s fear that white Americans may one day be supplanted by people of color, a nationalist conspiracy known as the “great replacement” theory. A flash point for racist paranoia, the great-replacement warning has shown up in several pre-shooting screeds over the past decade; increasingly, it’s being embraced not just by right-wing extremists but also by more mainstream GOP figures.

Below, a brief guide.

What does the ‘great replacement’ theory say?

The great-replacement doctrine warns that, largely because of immigration, non-white people will soon replace white people in the United States and other western countries. Its primary concerns are ostensibly political: Namely, that white citizens’ opinions and aims will be drowned out by a hostile agenda advanced by people of color. Neither of these groups is a monolith that can be counted on to vote exactly the same way — one reason of many that the ideological scaffolding does not stand up to scrutiny. But then it doesn’t stop with voting: At this year’s March for Life rallies opposing abortion rights, members of the white-nationalist Patriot Front made high-profile appearances, in some cases handing out literature about the “restoration of the American Family.” The (unfounded) concern among many such groups on the far right is that falling birthrates among white women will lead to other demographics overwhelming white populations.

All of which is to say the real panic here is cultural, existential, and deeply racist. It boils down to a fear that white people of European (and Christian) descent will eventually become extinct — or as Adolphus Belk Jr., a Winthrop University professor of political science and African American studies, explained it to NPR, that “whites will no longer be a majority of the general population, but a plurality, and see that as a threat to their own well-being and the well-being of the nation.”

According to … whom, exactly?

This is pretty much white-nationalist canon: In the U.S., you can trace its origins back to at least the late 19th century, when white supremacists argued that letting Black Americans vote would push white people out of power. Flash-forward 150 years, and that claim hasn’t borne fruit. We are still living under political and economic systems specifically engineered to prioritize white people — one indicator that the idea of mass white replacement is nothing more than fearmongering rhetoric.

Today’s great-replacement theory gets its name from Le Grand Remplacement, a 2011 book by French writer Renaud Camus. Its thesis, according to The New Yorker, warns that “native ‘white’ Europeans … are being reverse-colonized by black and brown immigrants, who are flooding the Continent in what amounts to an extinction-level event.” Per the New York Times, Camus has attempted to distance himself from the various gunmen who have recently taken up his doctrine, telling the publication that his premise is inherently nonviolent. Still, he wrote the Times in a 2019 email, if white supremacists feared that non-white ethnicities would eventually wipe white people off the map, then “good for them.”

“That is indeed my belief,” he said.

As for the white supremacists who have cited these concerns among their motives for mass violence, a shortlist: Ravings about white men’s supposed demise came up in the manifesto of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in coordinated attacks in 2011. Dylann Roof (listed among Gendron’s purported inspirations in the document he posted online) named them in his writings ahead of his 2015 Charleston church shooting, as did the man behind the New Zealand mosque massacres of 2019. That same year, Patrick Wood Crusius attributed his decision to shoot up an El Paso Walmart to what he called the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Echoes could be heard at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally of 2017 as neo-Nazis chanted, “The Jews will not replace us!”

Formerly associated with an extremist fringe, the replacement idea is increasingly gaining mainstream traction: According to a poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released last week, roughly one in three U.S. adults believes that immigrants are “being brought” into the country by a specific “group of people” to achieve “political gains.”

Who is responsible for normalizing this garbage?

Conservatives, particularly Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who — according to the Times analysis — “amplified the idea that Democratic politicians and others want to force demographic change through immigration” on at least 400 occasions in the past five years.

“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 in 2021, according to the AP. “But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually, let’s just say it. That’s true.”

Tucker Carlson Tonight ranks high among the most popular shows on Fox News (and across the cable-news landscape), averaging 3.4 million viewers during the second week of April alone. It seems reasonable to ascribe a share of this trend to his influence, but certain members of Congress have hopped on the train, too.

New York Representative Elise Stefanik, the chair of the GOP conference, has espoused replacement-theory-type viewpoints in her political ads without naming the source directly: “Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION,” read one example from 2021, according to the Washington Post. “Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” In her statement on Buffalo, Stefanik gestured toward “skyrocketing violent crimes.” Her senior adviser Alex DeGrasse told Reuters, “Any implication or attempt to blame the heinous shooting in Buffalo on the Congresswoman is a new disgusting low for the left, their Never Trump allies and the sycophant stenographers in the media.”

There’s also Newt Gingrich, formerly the Speaker of the House, who reportedly claimed on Fox News that leftists wanted to “drown” “classic Americans.” Then there’s Matt Gaetz, who tweeted “@TuckerCarlson is CORRECT about Replacement Theory as he explains what is happening to America” last September but told the Times he has “never spoken of replacement theory in terms of race” following Saturday’s shooting. The Guardian also spotlights Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, the Donald Trump–approved Senate hopeful from Ohio, who reportedly said at a campaign stop just last month, “You’re talking about a shift in the democratic makeup of this country that would mean we never win, meaning Republicans would never win a national election in this country ever again.” And, of course, there’s former Iowa representative Steve King, who has been on this tear for a while.

Certain Republican politicians are now calling on leadership to condemn white supremacy explicitly, with Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney writing in a tweeted statement that “the House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism” and that “history has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. @GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.” Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger echoed her, calling out Stefanik, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and extremists Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn in a tweet. Kinzinger is advocating for their literal replacement in their elected roles, a goal that feels unlikely at best.

What Is Replacement Theory?