‘Great replacement’: what is the conspiracy theory?

Manifesto linked to Buffalo shooting suspect Payton Gendron described black Americans and immigrants as ‘replacers’

The Buffalo Bills visit the scene of the Buffalo shootings
American football’s Buffalo Bills team pay their respects at the Buffalo shooting scene
(Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

An 18-year-old accused of killing ten people in a gun attack in Buffalo is alleged to have written an online racist manifesto promoting the so-called “great replacement” theory.

Suspect Payton Gendron was arrested after a total of 13 people, 11 of whom were black, were shot at a supermarket in the upstate New York city on Saturday. The massacre is believed to be “the worst mass shooting so far in the US in 2022”, said the BBC.

What is the theory?

The great replacement theory refers to claims by far-right and white supremacist groups that white Americans are at risk of being replaced by people of colour.

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This claim appears in the manifesto attributed to Gendron, much of which was “plagiarised” from the writings of Patrick Wood Crusius, a white supremacist accused of killing 23 people in a supermarket shooting in El Paso, Texas, three years ago, said The Atlantic.

Both of the public declarations argued that violence against non-white people is justified to prevent “white genocide” or the “replacement” of white Americans. The manifesto linked to Gendron claimed that “all black people are replacers just by existing in white countries”.

Where did the ‘great replacement’ idea originate?

The theory can be traced back to Theodore G. Bilbo, the “brazenly racist US senator” who held office from 1935 to 1947, according to Judd Legum in The Guardian.

Bilbo’s beliefs were “refreshed and repopularised” by a 1973 novel called The Camp of the Saints by French author Jean Raspail that became popular among American white supremacist and anti-immigrant groups, the paper said. The book was described as “an apocalyptic tale that attempts to depict the destruction of white, Western society at the hands of mass immigration from the Global South”.

In 2011, another French author, white nationalist Renaud Camus, published The Great Replacement, which argued that white Europeans “are being reverse colonised by black and brown immigrants, who are flooding the Continent in what amounts to an extinction-level event”. The book was also embraced by white supremacists.

Going mainstream?

Fears are growing that the theory is spreading into mainstream American society. Danilo Zak, a policy and advocacy manager at the Washington D.C.-based National Immigration Forum think-tank, told the FT that “it has become a more mainstream idea and… that’s because the dialogue around immigration and immigrants has become increasingly unhealthy”.

A recent poll of more than 4,000 people by AP found that “about one in three US adults believes an effort is under way to replace US-born Americans with immigrants”.

Indeed, New York magazine said that the theory is now so popular on the right that some figures have begun to rationalise the theory, if not the violence it can spark.

Last year, Fox News host Tucker Carlson said that “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World”.

National Review magazine’s editor-in-chief, Rich Lowry, has suggested that it was true that “Democrats want higher levels of immigration to change national elections”.

Meanwhile, reported The New York Times, the Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik has claimed in a campaign advertisement that the Democratic Party’s support for immigration reform is a plot to “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington”.

Counter attack

Concerned at the rise of the theory, Democrats are putting pressure on Republicans and right-wing media outlets to denounce it. The FT noted that Chuck Schumer, the New York senator, has sent a letter to top executives at Fox, including chair Rupert Murdoch, criticising the rhetoric that airs on its channels and asking them to stamp it out.

The Atlantic said the stakes are high, “because the threat of the interlopers – whether religious, racial, or ethnic – is existential” according to the theory and therefore “it justifies violence, in the form of murder, disenfranchisement, or dispossession”.

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