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How the ‘Great Replacement Theory’ Has Fueled Racist Violence

6 minute read

The man who opened fire in a Buffalo grocery store on Saturday, killing 10 people, appears to have been motivated by a white nationalist ideology known on dark corners of the web as the “great replacement theory.”

The ideology, centered on the baseless belief that the white population is being replaced by immigrants—in part intentionally through policies put in place by ‘elites’—has inspired numerous violent attacks in recent years, including the 2019 Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand. Yet a shocking amount of Americans believe in the concept.

According to a national poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, conducted in December, roughly a third of Americans believe there is a deliberate attempt underway to replace people born in the U.S. with immigrants. 29% of U.S. adults fear native-born Americans are losing economic, political, and cultural influence as the number of immigrants increase, the poll found.

Those numbers are even higher among Republicans. A separate poll from the University of Massachusetts Amherst conducted in December found that two-thirds of Republicans believe that the growth of the number of immigrants to the U.S. “means that America is in danger of losing its culture and identity.”

Here’s some background on the racist ideology.

What is “replacement theory” and how did it originate?

The “great replacement” refers to the idea that the political power and culture of the white race is being intentionally replaced by immigrants and minorities. Anti-immigration groups and white supremacists have associated the conspiracy theory with their unfounded argument that pro-immigration policies were designed by elites to destroy or undermine the white race.

Iterations of this argument can be found in various forms, though the dominant talking point tends to focus on the incorrect assumption that non-white immigrants will all vote a certain way and collectively diminish the influence of the white race, according to the National Immigration Forum.

The concept picked up steam when white nationalist writer Renaud Camus coined the “great replacement” phrase in a 2011 book, claiming that Muslims in France were destroying French civilization and culture due to their higher birth rates.

But the idea has earlier roots in Europe. Maurice Barres, the father of French nationalism, said in the early 1900s that Jewish people would take over and “ruin our homeland.” Versions of the theory were promoted in Nazi Germany. In the U.S., white supremacists used similar rhetoric in 2017 when they marched across the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, carrying tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “you will not replace us.”

Payton Gendron, the 18-year-old white man suspected of killing 10 and wounding another three in a predominantly Black area in Buffalo over the weekend, espoused similar views in a 180-page manifesto, according to authorities. He referenced “racial replacement” and “white genocide” in his writing, warning people of color to “leave while you still can.”

Read More: The Buffalo Shooter Targeted a City Haunted By Segregation

How conservative politicians elevated the theory

For years, “replacement theory” was confined to internet forums and white nationalist sites. But the ideology has gone mainstream recently in the U.S. as some conservative media and politicians have given more credence to the notion that an influx of immigrants and people of color will alter future elections and erase the history and culture of the western nations.

Although the Buffalo suspect said he immersed himself in this theory and other kinds of racist content online, versions of these ideas have been embraced by a growing number of right-wing lawmakers and candidates in campaign advertisements, talk show appearances, and social media. In August, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Fox News that leftists were attempting to “drown traditional, classic Americans with as many people as they can who know nothing of American history, nothing of American tradition, nothing of the rule of law.” (Gingrich told the New York Times that “replacement theory” is “insane” and that he is opposed to anti-semitism and “the white racist violence in Buffalo.”)

New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking House Republican, released a campaign ad on Facebook in September claiming that Democrats were plotting “a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION” by granting amnesty to illegal immigrants which would “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”

In 2021, in response to criticism about her ads, Stefanik wrote in a Facebook post, “To equate opposition to illegal immigration with Nazism and white supremacy is a desperate attempt to stoke outrage & avoid covering Joe Biden’s border crisis.”

Not all Republicans agree with these sentiments. Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, for example, have denounced their party for enabling white nationalism and anti-semitism. “History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse,” Cheney tweeted Monday. “@GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.” Kinzinger called out Stefanik by name, asking his followers in a tweet “Did you know: @EliseStefanik pushes white replacement theory?”

“Replacement theory” is also linked to right-wing media, and in particular, Tucker Carlson, who has promoted the ideology more vigorously than any other media personality. According to a New York Times investigation, Carlson has elevated “replacement theory” or similar beliefs on more than 400 episodes of his Fox prime-time show, arguing that Democrats want to force demographic change through welcoming immigration policies.

“@TuckerCarlson is CORRECT about Replacement Theory as he explains what is happening to America,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted after the Anti-Defamation League called on Fox to fire Carlson.

Fox News has declined to comment on the criticism of Carlson, though The Washington Post and NBC reported that a spokesperson pointed to on-air statements in which Carlson disavowed violence.

The recent AP-NORC poll found that people who mostly watched right-media outlets like Fox News, One American News Network, and Newsmax were more likely to believe in “replacement theory.”

Its role in hate crimes

Saturday’s mass shooting in Buffalo, which is being investigated as a “hate crime and an act of racially-motivated violent extremism,” according to Attorney General Merrick Garland, is the latest in a string of racially motivated attacks in recent years.

Six people were killed at a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012; nine people were killed at a Black South Carolina church in 2015; 11 at a synagogue in Pennsylvania in 2018; 23 at a Texas Walmart in 2019; and 50 people shot and killed at a mosque in New Zealand in 2019.

Each of these attacks, authorities believe, were rooted in beliefs similar to the “great replacement” theory. Minutes before the Texas shooting three years ago, a hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto by the suspected shooter appeared online referencing a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” It listed a plan to separate the U.S. into territories by race and warned that white people were being replaced by foreigners.

The mass shooting in Buffalo is now the latest tragedy seemingly inspired by “replacement theory.”

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com