The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘great replacement’ theory rises again, ending in tragedy

Yet history shows that ethnic and racial diversity has proved to be renewal, not replacement

Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff stop by a street vigil after attending a memorial service for mass shooting victim Ruth Whitfield in Buffalo on May 28. (Malik Rainey/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Payton Gendron, who was indicted by a grand jury for killing 10 people May 14 at a Tops Friendly Markets in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, repeatedly cited “the great replacement” theory as his motive for the shooting, according to authorities. Other deadly shooters have been similarly inspired, including the men responsible for the murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, and for shooting 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019.

This theory posits that Jews, racial minorities and immigrants are actively seeking to replace White native-born Americans through higher fertility rates and migration. Versions of replacement theory circulate widely, appearing on extremist sites on the “Dark Web” like 4chan, where the 18-year-old Gendron took his inspiration, authorities say. It also shows up in a slightly more muted version propagated by those such as Fox News’s most-watched TV host, Tucker Carlson.

Carlson has argued on his program, for example, that “the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if … you suggest the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate … but that’s exactly what they’re doing.” An AP-NORC poll released in early May found that about 1 in 3 Americans believe there is an active effort “to replace U.S.-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gain.”

While the specific targets and methods of spreading this theory may be new, White native-born Americans worrying about being replaced is not. And history demonstrates that the theory has been repeatedly used to legitimize discrimination and deadly violence.

Between 1880 and 1920, about 20 million immigrants entered the United States, the vast majority from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe. The arrival of these new immigrants, primarily Catholics and Jews from non-English-speaking countries, stimulated a backlash from “old stock” White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans, white supremacists, eugenicists and supporters of immigration restriction.

Like today, these fears circulated widely from influential platforms. In the best-selling “The Passing of the Great Race” (1916), Madison Grant, a friend of former president Theodore Roosevelt and vice president of the Immigration Restriction League, predicted that immigrants from Mediterranean and Alpine countries would soon outbreed Anglo-Saxons and Nordics, resulting in “race suicide.” Lothrop Stoddard’s “The Rising Tide of Color and the End of White World Supremacy (1920) declared that the explosion of non-White people presaged the end of Western civilization, and recommended eugenics as a remedy. Frederick Boyd Stevenson, an influential newspaper columnist in Brooklyn, opined that only immigrants who think as well as speak in English should be admitted to the United States. Responding to the increasing presence of Jews in New York City, an article in Pearson’s magazine mused that “Gentiles will shortly be on exhibition at the Bronx Zoo.”

The depth and pervasiveness of racial prejudice in the United States was underscored by the popularity of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” an epic account of the Civil War and Reconstruction filled with racist stereotypes of African Americans. Inspired in part by the movie’s celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, the organization — which had grown dormant in the years since the end of Reconstruction — reemerged and added millions of new members nationwide in the 1920s. This time, Catholics and Jews joined African Americans among the Klan’s list of enemies.

Such ideas had consequences. In 1924, overwhelming congressional majorities passed the most restrictive immigration bill in American history. Albert Johnson, Chair of the House Immigration Committee, argued that the United States could no longer serve as an “asylum” to people around the world. The legislation deployed a harsh quota system based on national origin. Targeting new arrivals, it limited the number of immigrants allowed to enter to two percent of the total number from each national group residing in the United States in 1890, a period before the peak of immigration from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe. The bill stipulated that the number of immigrants within the confines of the quota system could not exceed 150,000 in any year.

The 1924 legislation also barred all Japanese migrants from entering the United States — isolating immigrants from one nation, as Congress previously had done to China with the 1875 Page and 1882 Chinese Exclusion Acts.

At the time, the triumph of xenophobes seemed irreversible. But it wasn’t. Immigration largely ceased, but the door had closed too late. The immigrant groups targeted had already formed their families, found jobs, established businesses, created a web of religious, philanthropic and social welfare institutions, built their own communities, become citizens and voted.

While life in the United States involved a substantial degree of assimilation, it rarely resulted in an abandonment of prior ethnic traditions, values and identities. In the 1920s and ensuing decades, many immigrants embraced the term “hyphenate,” which had been an epithet flung at them during World War I. They were not Poles or Italians who lived in America, but Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans.

Their lived experience conclusively refuted the proposition that only people of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic descent could be “good Americans.” And it validated the theory of cultural pluralism advanced in the first two decades of the 20th century by Horace Kallen, who emigrated to the United States from Poland when he was five years old and became a founder of and professor at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

Questioning the idea of homogeneity as the foundation of a democratic society and its civic institutions, Kallen countered the metaphor of a “melting pot” with that of a symphony orchestra — with each of its many unique instruments essential to every performance.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the great replacement theories of Grant and Stoddard fell out of favor, especially after these theories had been embraced by Adolf Hitler and other fascists. Revelations about the full genocidal dimensions of Nazi racism coming from liberated concentrations camps after the war also contributed to the inclusion of cultural pluralism as a fundamental component of the American creed.

Shifts in policy soon followed.

Many children of immigrants fought for the United States in World War II and then as honorably discharged veterans took advantage of the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights to attend college and purchase homes with government-backed mortgages. With the government hoping to prevent another Great Depression by creating a large middle class with this legislation, male veterans with Southern, Central and Eastern European backgrounds were among those eligible — even as racial discrimination in higher education and the mortgage industry largely excluded non-Whites from benefits. Although just two decades earlier immigration from non-Anglo-Saxon nations had been restricted, the members of these ethnic groups were now deriving benefits from the government. In other words, they had become accepted as White Americans.

The Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended the policy of limiting immigration based on national origin. The legislation gave priority to highly-skilled individuals and those with family members living in the United States. Immigration increased to almost a half a million people per year, only 20 percent of them coming from Europe.

More recently, cultural pluralism has been supplemented, and to an extent supplanted, by the more racially-conscious concept of multiculturalism. And in the summer of 2020, millions of Americans, notable in their ethnic and racial diversity, took to the streets to protest racial injustice after the murder of George Floyd and affirm that Black Lives Matter.

The lesson is clear: The contributions of people from the widest array of nationalities have been indispensable to American prosperity, culture and democratic values. Over and over again, ethnic and racial diversity has proved to be renewal, rather than replacement.

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