Many people may now be familiar with the “great replacement” theory, universally used by white supremacists such as Payton Gendron, who drove 200 miles on May 14 to shoot 13 people in a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store. The 10 victims he killed were African American, as is one wounded survivor. Two others who were injured are white. In his alleged 180-page manifesto, he refers to himself as a fascist, a white supremacist, and an anti-Semite. He says he feared the dwindling size of the “white population and claims of ethnic and cultural replacement of whites.”
This statement embodies just one brand of replacement theory, racist. There are three others, though they are often intermingled: economic; cultural and ethnic; and political.
No matter which version is used, they are all insidious and dangerous.
Not long ago, this obscure idea reverberated only on way-out extremist, neo-Nazi, and anti-Semitic social media. Today, the theory of the “great replacement” is mainstream. As several news outlets have reported, it has its roots in the early 19th century French nationalist movement. The term itself was coined by French novelist and philosopher Renaud Camus (no relation to Albert Camus) in his 2011 book, “Le Grand Remplacement.”
The killer in the 2015 killings in a Charleston, S.C., church adhered to the theory, as did the protestors during the 2017 right-wing extremist rally in Charlottesville, Va., when they shouted, “You will not replace us; Jews will not replace us!” It underlies the 2018 attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, when 11 congregants were murdered. It motivated the shooter in El Paso, Texas, the following year when he killed 23 Hispanic shoppers. And Gendron in Buffalo.
The list of horrors is a long one, but the theory is not all cut from the same cloth.
First, racism in replacement theory is the predominant version. When most Black people in America were enslaved, there was no possibility of replacement. But after the defeat of the Confederacy and ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, white supremacists, mainly in the South, feared that Black people would mongrelize the white race and try to take political power.
Although the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteed legal equality and voting rights to freed Blacks, white supremacists organized into groups like the Ku Klux Klan to forestall any progress for African Americans. Lynchings, murders, and burning of homes and businesses oppressed and haunted Black Americans. In the South, it led to the Great Migration (1910s-1970s) to the North by those who hoped that life would be better up North. But many African Americans found prejudice, discrimination, and segregation there.
Those today, like Gendron, who follow the idea of the great replacement accept these racist views.
Second, cultural and ethnic replacement also remains in the grip of white supremacy. Camus, for example, based his book on his perception that France was losing its cultural heritage, as immigrants from the Middle East escaped the horrendous conditions of their native countries and fled to Europe. Social media sites developed by neo-Nazis, racists, and anti-Semites use the same argument, adding that Jews and Hispanics along with African Americans will soon displace the white majority.
Hinged to this view is the animus toward immigrants from South and Central America, who will only add to the nonwhite population. On the one hand, it led to President Donald J. Trump’s emphasis on building a wall on the southern border, and on the other hand, to mass murder. The New York Times reports that one study showed that 75 percent of all such killings were conducted by antigovernment right-wing extremists and white supremacists.
Third, economic replacement theory argues that immigrants will take jobs away from American citizens (read, white Americans), and give them to lower-earning migrants. They thought this would lead to a loss of jobs that (white) American citizens deserve. But studies have shown that immigration boosts the economy, as University of California, Davis, economist Giovanni Peri has demonstrated. Even the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, in 2020 said, “We are desperate, desperate for more people. We are running out of people to fuel the economic growth.” We need more legal immigrants, he went on, to make up the slack.
Finally, political replacement is the view used by Donald Trump, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R.-N.Y.). who is No. 3 in the House leadership. It has been consistently repeated by Senate candidate J.D. Vance (Ohio), Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Senator Ron Johnson (Wis.), and many other Republicans. Its goal is to ensure that those whose political views match theirs remain in power.
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming recently tweeted her objections. Republican leaders have “enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. @GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.”
Her point is well-taken: The theory of the great replacement must be condemned and defeated, and it doesn’t matter which version a speaker chooses.
Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, taught constitutional law and politics for more than 41 years.