What is the ‘great replacement theory’ cited by the accused Buffalo shooter?

In online postings, the alleged shooter in the Buffalo, New York, supermarket attack that killed 10 people reportedly associated himself with several hateful ideologies.

Among them is “great replacement theory.” The far-right conspiracy theory dates back to the mid-1990s and French writer Renaud Camus, according to Kurt Braddock, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communication.

Camus believed natives of France were being replaced by Muslims, Braddock said.

“The idea being that immigrants were replacing everyday white French individuals through two ways: through immigration, and through increasing birthrates of nonwhites and decreasing birthrates of white individuals,” Braddock said.

The conspiracy theory also includes an element of antisemitism, Braddock said, because some who adhere to the theory believe that the “replacement” is being orchestrated by Jewish people.

According to Braddock, the same ideology is now being held by some in the United States who believe white Americans are being replaced by nonnative Americans through immigration, and through increasing birthrates of immigrants. Those beliefs have led to followers expressing fear that white influence is being diminished.

“And that’s a crisis for people who want to ensure that the white non-Hispanic majority has the ability to elect the officials of their choice, the ability to essentially call the shots,” said Justin Hansford, the director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center.

The difference between this theory and other ideologies, Hansford said, is that it has moved from the fringes of the internet into some mainstream sources.

“It’s backed up by people who have a lot of legitimacy, even in conservative circles, outside of the internet chat rooms that you see the QAnon people of the world populate in terms of conspiracy theories,” Hansford said.

Braddock agrees, saying that in addition to people of the far right adhering to it, so are some conservative commentators.

“We’re seeing it being discussed in more mainstream circles, which is why we’re seeing it on cable news now and not just in these dark corners of the internet,” Braddock said.

Braddock believes those pushing the theory are playing off the fears of those who end up buying into the theory.

“The idea that there’s been some kind of invasion has been cultivated among these people, and they’re scared that they’re losing their country, and they feel they need to do something,” Braddock said.

Hansford believes pushers of the ideology are also targeting people facing economic hardship who are looking for someone to blame.

“​​The great replacement theory allows you to put the blame on someone else, so that you don’t have to take the blame. You don’t have to blame yourself. And that’s an emotional recipe for disaster. And it’s so seductive to people because it allows you to be the hero in your own mind,” Hansford said.

He believes stopping theories like this from spreading is through educating against the idea that we live in a zero-sum political environment.

“It’s not like the more people of color come in, that is going to result in less jobs for white people or less education for white people, or less money for white people. It’s got to be a situation where we’re all helping each other build this country together,” Hansford said.

Braddock said a technique known as “attitudinal inoculation” could help people he claims are vulnerable to persuasion through discussions with them.

“You motivate them to defend their beliefs, you give them counterarguments against the kinds of conspiracies like the great replacement, which had been persuasive to them,” Braddock said.

Research has shown the technique can result in finding people and groups that push such ideas less credible, he said.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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