Great Replacement Theory, Explained — Why It’s So Deadly

Rachel Curry - Author
By

May 16 2022, Published 11:16 a.m. ET

Another mass shooter has referenced the “great replacement theory” to rationalize their violent crimes. This time, 18-year-old suspect Payton S. Gendron shot more than a dozen people at a Buffalo supermarket and killed 10 of the victims.

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The racist ideologies behind the replacement theory trace back decades, but the term began popularizing in the 2010s. Here’s where it came from and why white supremacists are leveraging it for deadly violence.

The mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket traces back to the "great replacement theory."

On Saturday, May 14, Gendron allegedly shot 13 people at a Buffalo-based Tops supermarket, ultimately killing 10 individuals. Nearly all of the victims, a group of grocery store workers, shoppers, and a security guard, were Black.

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According to reports, Gendron visited the store the day prior to map out his attack. He chose the location based on the area’s large Black population. The premeditation goes back even further, with Gendron reportedly talking about planning a murder-suicide a year before the event.

Prior to the May shooting, Gendron also completed a rambling 180-page manifesto showcasing his belief in a white supremacist theory called the replacement theory, which bases its ideology on the assumption people of color are taking over the white population and thus threatening their political and social power. In the document, Gendron said European men are being “ethnically replaced,” attributing his heinous actions to a twisted, baseless vendetta.

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What is the so-called great replacement theory?

The great replacement theory is a white supremacist, anti-immigration, racist ideology that aligns with far-right individuals. It operates on the assumption that immigrants and people of color are replacing the white population.

While the term joined the popular far-right dialect in the 2010s, books like Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints (1973) influenced the racist idea that Western white culture was fighting a war against the global south. In 2012, Renaud Camus published The Great Replacement.

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In 2017, Charlottesville, Va. “Unite the Right” attendees famously adopted the slogan, “You will not replace us.” Right-wing media like Tucker Carlson and politicians like Steve King (former Republican representative from Iowa) have mentioned the concept of racial replacement.

Numerous mass shootings have been tied to racist replacement theory.

Mass shootings have plagued the U.S. for decades. However, they're getting more common (and deadlier). According to a 2019 report from the Los Angeles Times and National Institute of Justice, 33 percent of the 164 mass shootings from 1966–2019 occurred in the past nine years. At the time of the report, mass shooting deaths averaged 51 casualties per year, up from 5.7 in the 1970s.

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A domestic terrorist who killed 23 people and injured 23 others in El Paso, Texas in 2019 cited echoes of replacement theory ideologies, referencing “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Other mass shooters referenced replacement theory, including the gunman who killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and the New Zealand gunman who killed 51 people at a pair of mosques in the same year.

While the great replacement theory is a conspiracy theory that doesn't hold merit, its impact is deadly — and its ties to mass shootings in the U.S. and globally can't be denied.

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