Last weekend, a man identified by law enforcement authorities as an avowed white supremacist killed 10 people at a Buffalo grocery store. Police say the suspect intentionally targeted Black Americans on the basis of their race. As with other recent mass shooters in El Paso and Christchurch, New Zealand, authorities say the suspect explained his actions in a screed that draws heavily from the “great replacement” narrative — a racist theory that maintains native-born Whites are being intentionally displaced as ethnic majorities in their nations.
This narrative has spread well beyond the forums of the far right. It is now promoted by such prominent figures as Fox’s Tucker Carlson and Republican officials, who argue that Democrats want to increase immigration to secure an electoral majority. And France’s recent presidential election included several right-leaning candidates who openly referred to the theory to exploit xenophobic fears.
Since the Buffalo attack, commentators and politicians from the right have attempted to divert attention from the theory and instead focus on the shooter’s shaky mental health. But ignoring this narrative would obscure how it feeds and amplifies networks of white extremist violence. Replacement theory significantly threatens civil society by provoking White race panic over ongoing population change.
The ‘great replacement’ theory encourages a sense of imminent threat
Much of the great replacement narrative grows from a long history of anti-immigration sentiment in the United States and Europe. But its particular virulence comes from the story it spins about population change. Those who endorse this narrative argue that birthrate declines in Europe and North America mean White majorities are being “replaced” by non-White populations — and this substitution is not an accident. Rather, the story goes, political elites have engineered these demographic shifts to bring about a more globalized world.
It is the combination of the two ideas that makes great replacement theory particularly toxic. Not only are birthrates flagging across the global North, but these demographic trends are thought to be deliberately accelerated by policymakers to replace White populations with immigrants and people of color. This insistence upon a deliberate threat leads to the more lurid variants of the replacement narrative that cast demographic change as “white genocide” or “white extermination.”
Scholars of extremism note that extremist worldviews historically rely on this sense of threat or persecution. But the Buffalo, Christchurch and El Paso writings reveal that the “great replacement” narrative encourages a more dangerous belief: that a threatened White nation can be saved only through violence against its perceived enemies.
Far-right leaders argue that there’s a race war underway that requires a violent response
Those gripped by replacement fears typically propose that the White birthrates must be increased. This emphasis on reproduction has been long raised by U.S. white-supremacist movements as a path toward a majority-White nation. The opening lines of the Buffalo screed say that “if there’s one thing I want you to get from these writings, it’s that White birthrates must change.”
For much of the far right, however, a long-term project of repopulation does not address the immediate threat. These figures insist on more urgent action against what they present as an “invasion” of immigrants and non-Whites. Some propose that most categories of immigrants and their descendants be forced to return to their countries of origin. Others argue for a “racial divorce” that would separate Whites and non-Whites into segregated, ethnic homelands. But those who promote or commit mass violence take a more extreme stance: Violence is a move demanded by an ongoing race war.
Many far-right figures, for instance, assert that population change amounts to a hidden war that has been actively covered up by the mass media — where White majorities are under attack by ethnic intermarriage and rising crime rates. Since they say the nation is their birthright, the cultural and political rise of non-Whites is viewed as a hostile takeover. By presenting these changes as part of a war that’s already underway, far-right figures generate an air of emergency that demands extreme action. As the Christchurch shooter wrote, “radical, explosive action is the only desired, and required, response to an attempted genocide.”
The El Paso, Christchurch and Buffalo documents all described the violence as a way to awaken a slumbering White majority to the demographic war supposedly taking place around them. More troubling, this violence is intended to spur Whites to “take back” their nation through broader violent action. For instance, the writer of the Buffalo document, largely plagiarizing the Christchurch shooter’s writings, asserted that the aim “is to spread awareness to my fellow Whites about the real problems the West is facing, and to encourage further attacks that will eventually start the war that will save the Western world [and] save the White race.”
It is tempting to read these screeds as the thoughts of unbalanced, isolated extremists. But their appeals to violence echo leading far-right figures’ ideas. For instance, Guillaume Faye, a writer of the European New Right, proposed that an “ethnic civil war” is perhaps the only viable path available for native White Europeans to reclaim their embattled cultures and nations.
This theory’s incitement to violence endangers multiracial, multiethnic democracy
According to this paranoiac vision, White native populations have been betrayed by their political leaders and must struggle for their survival. Their nations, cultures and traditions have been forcibly taken from them and given to others. The crisis imagined here cannot be addressed through democratic channels, only by extreme and violent action.
That is the reason these extremist acts of racial violence persistently invoke the same conspiratorial theme of race panic. The replacement narrative, disseminated by the leaders of the far right, mainstream media figures and conservative elected officials, does more than simply recruit people into networks of white extremism. More urgently, it presents population change as a situation of hidden violence that demands violence in return. In doing so, the “great replacement” theory threatens a multiracial, multiethnic nation.
Michael Feola (@feolski) is an associate professor of government and law at Lafayette College, the author of “The Powers of Sensibility” (Northwestern University Press, 2018) and finishing a book manuscript on the far right’s politics of racial anxiety.