On May 14, 2022, an 18-year-old boy named Payton Gendron drove three hours from his home to a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and opened fire killing 13 mostly black people (about ten shoppers). The shooting revealed white supremacy. Gendron’s gun contains racial slurs and his 180-page online manifesto also includes key elements of replacement theory.
This conspiracy theory, rooted in 20th-century French nationalism, falsely warns that Western elites and Jews are bringing immigrants into a country to replace whites.
Since the shooting, some Republican politicians and commentators have used language that echoes this idea.
It is important to understand what replacement theory means and how it shapes the various white supremacist conspiracies that fuel violent extremism.
This once marginalized theory has gained widespread attention in the United States and momentum over the past few decades. It is necessary to understand the various factors that drive people to commit violent extremism in order to prevent it from occurring.
This article highlights three basic points of replacement theory to keep in mind.
Replacement theory: What is it?
Those who believe in the replacement theory argue that there are organized and conspiratorial efforts at all levels of society to construct a “grand replacement” of white civilization and white culture.
For those who accept this misconception, the threat represents an existential danger to white identity and society.
Four out of 10 Americans identify as non-white, and the number of whites in the United States is expected to continue to decline, according to U.S. Census projections.
This ultimately meant that white influence and power were diminishing over time. Proponents of replacement theory argue that they must correct the declining influence of white voters and white identity in any way possible.
A key element of the replacement theory concerns immigration. Immigration is seen as part of a conspiracy to replace the political power and culture of whites living in Western countries.
But the theory is not just about immigration. As with other white supremacist ideologies, the replacement theory extends to Jews and Blacks. These are seen as inferior and a threat to whites. The Buffalo shooter targeted victims in a predominantly black community because they were black.
How did the replacement theory come about?
Replacement theory can be traced to the early 20th century writings of French nationalist Maurice Barres, who warned that new immigrant populations would take over and “destroy our homeland.”
The idea of a Jewish plot to rule the world was articulated in the anti-Semitic document “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” first published in Russia in 1903, and then moving westward into Europe, and the American replacement theory also guided the Nazis to exterminate 6 million Jews during World War II.
During the 1960s and 1970s, many American white supremacists, such as Klu Klux Klan leader Thomas Robb, reiterated alternative views in their racist political propaganda. White supremacists generally believe that whites are superior to all other races.
In the 1980s, Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, white supremacist Don Black, and others engaged in a dialogue around the theory of immigration replacement in the United States and the idea that immigration would change the demographics and eventually replace whites.
Throughout the 1990s, racist skinhead groups and growing white supremacist online networks also promoted variations of replacement theories to justify their politics and violence.
During this time, the Internet became the primary forum for recruiting more white supremacists. One of the common ideologies shared by online groups and forums is that of alternative narratives – now closely associated with immigration.
Many white supremacist and nationalist groups and leaders in the United States continue to embrace alternative narratives. Such conspiracy theories have become a standard part of white nationalism, leading to violence in the United States and around the world. For example, a gunman who killed at least 50 Muslims in a New Zealand mosque in 2019 wrote what he called an “assault on Europeans.”
A theory that fuels violence and holds American democracy hostage
Conspiracy stories, like replacement theories, often find fertile ground in times of cultural change.
As the American population has become more diverse, replacement narratives have moved from the margins of extremism to the mainstream.
A May 2022 Associated Press opinion poll found that about one-third of American adults “believe efforts are being made to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gain.”
The Buffalo shooting is only the latest deadly incident in which violent perpetrators are motivated by alternative theories – and it’s unlikely to be the last. Some experts say the shooter’s decision to broadcast his atrocities live could inspire other extremists to harm others.
The violent extremists who attacked Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 targeted Jews and killed 11 people. The gunman who attacked a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019 wanted to target Hispanics and kill 23 people.
Replacement theories also emerged at a white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017, when hundreds of white nationalists protested the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. They marched and chanted “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” A 21-year-old white supremacist also drove his car through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring dozens more.