Nearly a week since 10 residents were killed by a white supremacist who opened fire at a grocery store in Masten Park, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, public discourse around the threat of white supremacist violence in the U.S. has become unavoidable.
Americans have witnessed this type of violence many times before. In 2012, a white supremacist killed seven Sikhs during a shooting at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Three years later, a self-proclaimed white supremacist targeted a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine Black residents. In 2019, another white supremacist killed more than 20 people during a rampage at a Walmart in a predominantly Latinx area of El Paso, Texas.
Other shootings involving white perpetrators targeting marginalized religious groups and Black, Indigenous, and people of color have occurred in the last two years. The list goes on.
A common misconception about white nationalists is that their hate-fueled actions are inflamed by economic insecurity, a myth that has been debunked by existing research, according to Devin Burghart, who has studied white hate groups for 30 years.
“It is not based on economic circumstance or even appeals to that so much as it is an ideological construction,” said Burghart, who serves as executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), which monitors white nationalist movements. “That ideological construction is far more important than any kind of real or imagined economic scarcity.”
That ideology is known as the “great replacement theory” conspiracy. Simply put, this theory suggests Jewish people are using immigrants of color to replace white Americans in the country, as a way to take over the nation where the white population will become diminished. In the wake of the Buffalo attack, which the gunman had livestreamed, investigators found he had shared a manifesto online espousing the great replacement theory.
The right-wing conspiracy theory’s exact origins are hard to pinpoint, but experts broadly agree its foundation stems from French ethnonationalism, which fueled existing white supremacist sentiment in Europe and the U.S. after the publication of “Le Grand Remplacement” (The Great Replacement) by French author Renaud Camus a decade ago.
A known white French nationalist, Camus argues an “elitist group” was plotting to replace the white populations of Europe with non-European Muslim migrants from Africa and the Middle East through what he dubbed as “genocide by substitution.”
“You hear that in a diluted form being promoted by [conservative Fox News host] Tucker Carlson and by a number of politicians on the right when it comes to U.S. immigration policy,” Burghart said, referring to the theory’s core principle. “In fact, from Stephen Miller on through to a number of elected officials, those kinds of ideas are used to push a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric today.”
According to an explainer published by the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group, the great replacement theory conspiracy often takes shape in three variations: the rhetoric of a pending “migrant invasion,” conspiracies about voters of color “replacing” white voters, and anti-Semitism painting Jewish people as “elites” who control everything—talking points heard from many Republican figures today.
“Over the last 10 years or so, we’ve absolutely seen a rise in some of this virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric, and not from everyone on the right, but certainly it’s become more mainstream,” said Danilo Zak, policy and advocacy manager at the
National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C.
There is also a clear connection between extreme anti-immigrant sentiment and racism against marginalized groups, such as the anti-Blackness that fueled the Buffalo attack, Zak said.
“When it comes to the great replacement theory, specifically, it’s really an attempt by white supremacists and neo-Nazis and others who are trying to redefine what it means to be an American as being white,” Zak said. “And all others—all people of color—whether that’s Black Americans or immigrants from non-white countries, become ‘invaders’ … [and] become the ‘replacers.’”
White supremacist ideals may no longer be exclusive to the fringe corners of society. A poll released by the Associated Press and the research arm for the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago a week ago found one-in-three Americans believes in some version of the great replacement theory.
Another indicator of this societal shift is the increasing number of lawmakers with extremist views. Arizona Republican state Sen. Wendy Rogers, for example, is now under investigation after a tweet suggesting the Buffalo shooting had been a “false flag” operation by federal authorities. Rogers has promoted white nationalist ideas before and is affiliated with the far-right group the Oath Keepers.
The link between white nationalism and U.S. politics has become increasingly defined as many public officials become part of these far-right groups. In a recent report, the IREHR identified 875 state legislators—nearly 12% of state legislators in the U.S.—who joined far-right groups on Facebook. These groups are dedicated to extremist activity such as attacking so-called critical race theory and promoting racist and anti-Semitic conspiracies, COVID-19 denialism, and even paramilitary action.
The report noted that lawmakers with extremist links were responsible for introducing or sponsoring nearly 1,000 pieces of anti-human rights laws in the country in the last year.
Sanitized and abstracted language that is often used to promote white extremist ideas is a big part of how those ideas can end up in the highest echelons of power.
“It makes it more difficult to combat because as it sanitizes itself, it doesn’t include the more extreme elements,” Zak said. “It allows elected officials and others to sort of hide behind slightly less extreme ideas that are still clearly linked to the more dangerous and racist ideology.”
Anti-racist groups and advocates have called for greater action from the government to combat the growing threat of white supremacist violence against minority communities for years.
“It’s hard to believe that in 2017 we are still plagued by so much race-based hatred,” said Derrick Johnson at the time. Johnson was then-interim president and CEO of the NAACP and was among advocacy leaders calling for government accountability after the deadly Charlottesville rally. “These kinds of actions should come as no surprise, however. We are living under an administration that campaigned on hatred, discrimination, and xenophobia. They have given permission and a platform for bigots, like the right-wing, white nationalists in Charlottesville, [Virginia,] to thrive and spread violence.”
This week, the House passed legislation to bolster federal resources to prevent domestic terrorism in the U.S., after mounting public pressure to address the country’s white supremacist violence in the wake of the Buffalo shooting. The bill, however, is unlikely to pass the Senate, given the slim majority held by Democrats.
But Burghart of IREHR believes eradicating the country’s white nationalist movements will take more than federal government intervention. It involves taking individual responsibility, including pushing back against politicians who promote racist theories like the great replacement conspiracy, and community-involved work.
“To hear things like the great replacement theory being parroted by politicians and on TV by folks like Tucker Carlson is something unfathomable, even a decade ago,” Burghart said. “So the terrain upon which we look at this stuff has shifted dramatically, which makes it far more challenging to try and figure out ways to build effective barriers against bigotry.”