Several months before Payton S. Gendron carried out a racist mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, which targeted Black patrons, the 18-year-old white man regularly posted on social media about the “great replacement" theory, false claims that white people in the U.S. are intentionally being replaced by nonwhite people through immigration, interracial marriage, and violence.
In Gendron’s alleged manifesto, the man, whose attack is being investigated as a hate crime, shares details about the planned massacre, like choosing Buffalo as the scene for his attack because it was the city closest to him with the highest number of Black people. Racist mass shootings targeting Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous populations in this country aren’t new — and neither is the premise, or motive, of the “great replacement” theory. In fact, it’s the American way.
After the invasion, genocide, and displacement of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, this country’s founding fathers determined that the U.S. was by and for white Americans, and the minority nonwhite population existed to serve. Throughout history, as these marginalized groups grew and began gaining power through numbers, different versions of the “great replacement” theory were born.
Racist mass shootings targeting Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous populations in this country aren’t new — and neither is the premise, or motive, of the “great replacement” theory.
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, upon the emancipation of enslaved Africans and the seizing of lands like modern-day Texas, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, the eugenics movement punctually made its way to the U.S. The goal of the movement was to rewire the racial composition of an increasingly diverse nation by methodically enacting policies that control the reproduction of a people. “It became very important, because people with a lot of social influence really embraced it,” New York Times deputy national editor and author of One Mighty and Irresistible Tide Jia Lynn Yang said. “These are leading economists, leading scientists, people who are really kind of dictating intellectual American life at the time. Eugenics was completely mainstream.”
We saw this in the glossed-over history of the U.S.-sanctioned eugenics program in Puerto Rico, where U.S. scientists and government launched a sterilization operation and used low-income boricua women as subjects for birth control research without their informed consent. According to the 1982 film La Operacion by Ana Maria Garcia, one-third of Puerto Rican women could not have children as a result. Similarly, Mexican immigrant women in California were forced to sign paperwork that gave the state the right to sterilize them by threatening to keep their newborns. Their stories were finally recognized in PBS’ 2016 documentary No Más Bebés.
New restrictions to abortion access, and the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade, will further influence sexual and reproductive rights in the U.S., especially for birthing people of color. One Mississippi reproductive rights activist, Laurie Bertram Roberts, draws ties with the current political mayhem brewing around criminalizing abortion and the hate groups peddling “great replacement” talking points. To her, the pro-life body politic isn’t about protecting life more than it is about ensuring the genetic superiority of one race over another. “If you look at the states that are the most restrictive around abortion, they’re also the states most invested in white replacement theory,” she said. “They’re the most conservative and a lot of them also happen to be in the southeast, where there’s a long history and fight over how many Black folks are still around and how many Hispanic people are coming in. And so there is a lot of conversation about the white birth rate.”
“If you look at the states that are the most restrictive around abortion, they’re also the states most invested in white replacement theory.”
Laurie Bertram Roberts
Similarly, anti-immigration movements in the U.S. grew out of ideologies at the root of the “great replacement” theory. For instance, in 1916, the immigration restrictionist Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race, a book that posited that immigration, and the inner-mixing that comes from it, was ruining the “Anglo-Saxon” population. His works helped spark anti-immigration laws that passed in the 1920s, which limited entry from Black and Asian migrants. (Note: Even before the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act marked a schism in U.S. immigration history, there was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a landmark law that for the first time singled out an ethnic group for restriction.)
This rhetoric hasn’t just continued; it’s intensified. In his 1987 book The Birth Dearth, the late columnist and demographer Ben Wattenberg warned white people about the Third World, and how the global south would eventually dominate and erode Western culture if there is no change of action. Today, white supremacists have reenvisioned the concept of the “great replacement” theory as a covert operation designed by the U.S. government to “undermine or replace the political power and culture of white people living in Western countries.”
With immigration largely coming from Latin America, Black and Brown Latinx people have been among the primary targets. From the anti-Latinx immigrant rhetoric popular on conservative media, to legislation that targets Latinx migrants specifically, to the physical violence directed at this community, including the 2019 El Paso shooting, those who subscribe to the “great replacement” theory fear a browning of the U.S. and will kill to protect the illusion of white supremacy. But Latinxs haven’t been the only groups to be fatally targeted. There has been a rise in anti-Asian violence and a long, and ongoing, history of attacks against Black churches — and, now, supermarkets.
Extrajudicially murdering and sterilizing Black and Brown communities are just some of the tools white people have used to control people of color and manipulate their lives.
Of course, extrajudicially murdering and sterilizing Black and Brown communities are just some of the tools white people have used to control people of color and manipulate their lives. Imprisonment is another example; the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate on the planet, and Black and Latinx people are among the most likely to be detained. This is the consequence of a centuries-old, politically motivated myth that the mere presence of nonwhite people is a threat to white life and the conspiracy of white supremacy.
Despite conservative talking heads, like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, often amplifying this theory to its millions of followers for several years, many have recently tried to distance themselves from Gendron’s violence. According to a Washington Post report, nearly half of Republicans agree with the “great replacement” theory. In fact, many have defended and rationalized the claims that allegedly motivated Gendron’s racist attack; however, some are now condemning the mass shooting that their crusade inspired.
Even more, they’ve attempted to fashion the violence that these racist conspiracy theories breed as something jarring and unheard of. In doing so, they undermine the atrocious legacy of U.S. genocide and the very real lived experiences of its countless victims.