The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion GOP leaders ought to banish officials who embrace ‘replacement theory’

People gather Sunday outside a Tops market in Buffalo where a gunman killed 10 on Saturday. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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The memorial dedicated by the White townspeople of Colfax, La., in 1921 was at least direct. Many Southern monuments to Confederate heroes erected in this era are made up only of an image and a name. But on the white marble obelisk in Colfax was engraved: “Erected to the memory of the heroes, Stephen Decatur Parish, James West Hadnot, Sidney Harris, who fell in the Colfax riot fighting for white supremacy.”

The Colfax conflict was less a riot and more a frenzied murder spree against Black citizens who were resisting white supremacy. Most of the “rioters” took refuge in the local courthouse. The building was set aflame. Whites shot anyone who tried to put out the fire. Many Black people who tried to escape were slaughtered at close range. Later in the evening, drunk, younger White men executed the remaining prisoners by marching them two by two out of a makeshift jail and shooting them from behind. By the end of the massacre, as many as 80 Black people were dead.

All these heinous crimes were committed with impunity. Local law enforcement had no intention of arresting and convicting the guilty. The Black people of Colfax, according to historian Nicholas Lemann, “had no choice but to live meekly under the rule of the men who had killed their husbands and sons and brothers.”

I recount this story not only because it is tragic but also because it demonstrates some enduring characteristics of white supremacy. The White people in this case were not merely acting out of racial animus (though their cups runneth over with hatred). The prejudice and violence of many White Southerners were incited and sustained by a certain historical narrative. They generally believed that violent actions by Whites — eventually organized by the Ku Klux Klan and the White League — were fundamentally defensive in nature.

After the Civil War, in this view, a cabal of carpetbaggers and vindictive Black officials was attempting to destroy the Southern way of life. Whites were resisting a culture war being conducted against them.

This vision of victimization was set out in films such as “The Birth of a Nation,” screened by President Woodrow Wilson at the White House in 1915. Such cultural products lent credibility to White fears and knit these fears into a compelling conspiracy theory — one reinforced by newspapers, educational institutions, politicians and movie night at the White House. It was hard to separate such theories from efforts across the South to intimidate Black people through lynching and mass violence.

These thoughts came to mind with the Buffalo grocery store massacre. The accused killer wrote a manifesto endorsing the “great replacement theory,” popular among today’s right-wing activists and media personalities. In this belief, the progressive left is encouraging the unfiltered immigration of fecund non-Whites to replace White citizens, dilute White political influence and destroy White culture. In some instances, the story alleges that the whole plot is being orchestrated by Jews.

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Replacement theory checks many of the boxes of useful racist ideology. Most of all, it presents White people as the victims of a plot. Their anger and resentment, in this theory, are natural reactions to the cultural aggression of the other side. Their failures and suffering are no longer their fault. There are always enemies to blame. The future of White, Christian America is at stake. Those willing to fight for it, in this self-justifying myth, are heroes.

Do the purveyors of replacement theory bear some responsibility when their revisionism motivates murderers? Of course they do. This dispute has become tiresome and pointless. There is no moral world in which those who libel outsiders, justify rage, incite bigotry and allege that enemies have broken down the outer gate are innocent of the likely influence of their words.

And the method of mass killing is not some insane, unimaginable, unknown act of evil — something committed by the demon possessed. Lynchings and large-scale terrorist murder were relatively common features of the post-Civil War political order, designed to intimidate Black people and undo that war’s outcome. If the Buffalo supermarket killer’s motivation was to undo the anti-racism of modernity, he is part of a long, ignoble history of racist killers.

Opinion: The Black victims of the Buffalo shooting were killed by white supremacy

The perpetrator of this mass murder will not be given impunity. But the racist ideas closely associated with such killing are being granted impunity daily within the Republican Party. The problem is not just that a few loudmouths are saying racist things. It is the general refusal of Republican “leaders” to excommunicate officials who embrace replacement theory. The refusal of Fox News to fire the smiling, public faces of a dangerous, racist ideology.

This much needs to be communicated — by all politicians and commentators — with clarity: No belief that likens our fellow citizens to invaders and encourages racist dehumanization is an American belief.