Payton Gendron, who was indicted by a grand jury for killing 10 people May 14 at a Tops Friendly Markets in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, repeatedly cited “the great replacement” theory as his motive for the shooting, according to authorities. Other deadly shooters have been similarly inspired, including the men responsible for the murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, and for shooting 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019.
This theory posits that Jews, racial minorities and immigrants are actively seeking to replace White native-born Americans through higher fertility rates and migration. Versions of replacement theory circulate widely, appearing on extremist sites on the “Dark Web” like 4chan, where the 18-year-old Gendron took his inspiration, authorities say. It also shows up in a slightly more muted version propagated by those such as Fox News’s most-watched TV host, Tucker Carlson.
Carlson has argued on his program, for example, that “the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if … you suggest the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate … but that’s exactly what they’re doing.” An AP-NORC poll released in early May found that about 1 in 3 Americans believe there is an active effort “to replace U.S.-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gain.”
While the specific targets and methods of spreading this theory may be new, White native-born Americans worrying about being replaced is not. And history demonstrates that the theory has been repeatedly used to legitimize discrimination and deadly violence.
Between 1880 and 1920, about 20 million immigrants entered the United States, the vast majority from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe. The arrival of these new immigrants, primarily Catholics and Jews from non-English-speaking countries, stimulated a backlash from “old stock” White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans, white supremacists, eugenicists and supporters of immigration restriction.
Like today, these fears circulated widely from influential platforms. In the best-selling “The Passing of the Great Race” (1916), Madison Grant, a friend of former president Theodore Roosevelt and vice president of the Immigration Restriction League, predicted that immigrants from Mediterranean and Alpine countries would soon outbreed Anglo-Saxons and Nordics, resulting in “race suicide.” Lothrop Stoddard’s “The Rising Tide of Color and the End of White World Supremacy” (1920) declared that the explosion of non-White people presaged the end of Western civilization, and recommended eugenics as a remedy. Frederick Boyd Stevenson, an influential newspaper columnist in Brooklyn, opined that only immigrants who think as well as speak in English should be admitted to the United States. Responding to the increasing presence of Jews in New York City, an article in Pearson’s magazine mused that “Gentiles will shortly be on exhibition at the Bronx Zoo.”