“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” begins the manifesto of the El Paso shooter, who killed twenty-two people and injured twenty-four others at a Walmart on August 3, 2019. The gunman argued that he had been forced to commit this mass murder, writing: “I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”
Eight years earlier, a far-right militant in Norway committed a strikingly similar act of terror; in July 2011 he killed seventy-seven people with a homemade car bomb and mass shooting at a youth camp. He denounced supposed “demographic warfare,” claiming that “Islam is growing rapidly in Western Europe; from 50,000 in 1955 to 25 million today.” He termed this deliberate plot to replace white Europeans with black and brown migrants until Europe has no white population left.
In the past decade, countless mass killers around the world have claimed motivated by a belief in the imminent genocide of white people. Though they have much in common (all white, all men, predominantly radicalized online) they also come from four different continents, span a breadth of ages, and articulate a vast array of political beliefs.
Their manifestos express one core ideology: the belief in the fall of Western civilization and the imminent extinction of white people. Among theorists of conspiracy and racial hatred this is known as “White Replacement” theory. In fact, it has two historical sources: a “Great Replacement” theory, with roots in French colonial history and early French nationalism, and the more American-derived “White Genocide” theory, which can be traced to the post–Civil War Reconstruction era.
Of course, these theories aren’t everything — the distinctions may even seem to matter less and less, as copycat-type attacks spread. Beyond the specific points they raise in their manifestos, the perpetrator of a mass killing in Christchurch, New Zealand earlier this year claimed inspiration from the Norwegian terrorist, and the gunman in El Paso was, in turn, motivated by the Christchurch shooter. We can expect that others will follow in this grim list.
Yet understanding these theories remains decisive to combatting the new far right. Immensely popular on social media, the belief that the “white race” faces extinction is a deadly conspiracy. Promoted by fearmongers like Tucker Carlson, whether it is overtly referred to or merely dog-whistled, the spread of this belief is at the heart of a dangerous new movement.
The Great Replacement
There is no proof whatsoever that white people are “going extinct.” Given changing global economic patterns and the fact that communities with access to adequate health care, reproductive freedom, and high standards of living tend to have fewer children and higher life expectancy, the demography of certain geographic areas is bound to change in years to come.
The projected size of this shift is a subject of great debate among demographers. Suffice it to say that the groups currently considered to be white will not cease to exist and are certainly not victims of a genocide. Such ideas are not worth entertaining, beyond the effort to actively debunk them.
Indeed, the theories of white extinction long predate present demographic shifts. Perhaps the most influential such conspiracy is the “Great Replacement” theory. Originating in the early days of French nationalism, the term “le grand remplacement” emerged around the year 1900. The theory has two main components:
- That a generally “Western” identity is under siege by massive waves of immigration from non-European sources, resulting in a replacement of European individuals via the higher birth rates of non-European immigrants.
- That this replacement has been orchestrated by a shadowy group as part of its grand plan to rule the world — which it will do by creating a completely racially homogenous society. This group is often overtly called the Jews, but sometimes the antisemitism is more implicit.
The term “le grand remplacement” was first introduced to the public discourse via a trilogy of novels by the French nationalist Maurice Barrès. Entitled Le Roman de l’énergie nationale, or The Novel of National Energy, these works follow a group of soldiers who leave their native France, only to find themselves pining for their homeland. In this novel, Barrès — a noted antisemite and believer in “race science” — warns against a potential “grand remplacement” by “l’étranger” — a “great replacement” by “the foreigner.” Should this happen, wrote Barrès — if foreigners invade and populate the nation — then even if “France can always be called France, its soul will be dead, emptied, destroyed.”
It is worth noting that the concept of race and national identity in these works was strongly influenced by France’s status as a colonial power and profiteer of the slave economy. As a colonial power engaged in the centuries-long slave trade, the construction of racial difference in France has always been predicated on white supremacy and anti-blackness. Legacies of fear surrounding slave uprisings and the retributive violence directed towards white masters pervade France’s colonial legacy — one historical example being the rebellion of self-liberated slaves in Haiti in August 1791, which led to the Haitian revolution and subsequent national independence from French colonial rule. As French nationalism became a mass force in the early twentieth century, the concepts of national identity and white identity/supremacy were already deeply intertwined.
“The Great Replacement” theory proliferated throughout twentieth-century Francophone spaces, often cropping up in circles of race science and eugenics. It was in 1973, however, that the conspiracy was repopularized in Jean Raspail’s novel Le Camp des saints. The book crafts a dystopian tale in which a fleet of “dark-skinned refugees” from India set sail for France’s shores. This eventually leads to the fall of Europe and the complete collapse of Western society. By the end of the Le Camp des saints, as Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy note in the Atlantic, the Queen of England is made to marry her son to a Pakistani wife, while New York’s mayor has to share Gracie Mansion with three Harlem families.
Though at the time the book was generally condemned as racist in French intellectual circles, it did receive some praise from reviewers — even going so far as to be deemed “prophetic,” as noted by Jean-Marc Moura, a professor of literature at Paris-Nanterre University .
In 2010 the Great Replacement theory enjoyed a massive boom in popularity, in France and beyond. The white supremacist Renaud Camus introduced the term in his book De l’Innocence, warning of the replacement of white Europeans by peoples coming from the Middle East and North Africa. This is the text that influences much current white-supremacist discourse and fuels the growing “Identitarian” movement around the world. Identitarians advocate for an ethnically and racially heterogeneous world; they believe that “racial mixing” (i.e., sex and reproduction between people of different races) weakens the fabric of our society and poses an imminent threat to the stability of white, Western nations and the world as a whole.
It is difficult to understate how ubiquitous this belief is across wide swaths of online communities. There are YouTube channels and Gab and 8chan accounts entirely devoted to the Great Replacement Theory. And not all seem like the ravings of fringe radicals.
Martin Sellner, the head of the Austrian Identitarians, has made an art of packaging the Great Replacement theory as a merely “rational” belief, labeling those who adhere to it as “ethno-pluralists.” He says: “If you really are an ethno-pluralist, you clearly say that every culture has its right of existence and its value in the self … I grant Tibetans, and the Japanese, and the Sri Lankans the right for existence — for having an ethnocultural identity and being sovereign nations. And I want just the same right for us [white Europeans].” It should be noted that Identitarians have been arrested trying to physically block migrants from landing on the coast of the Mediterranean, and Sellner himself was banned from the United States after it was revealed that the Christchurch shooter donated money directly to him.
Understanding the scope of this movement helps us understand the motivating role the Great Replacement theory has had for numerous mass killers in recent years — in particular those defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “alt-right killers.” Since the Norway shooter, countless other mass killers have overtly named the Great Replacement as a key reason for their acts of murder — indeed, Christchurch killer actually titled his manifesto The Great Replacement. He believed that by the year 2100, “population figures show that the population [of black and brown immigrants] does not decrease in line with the sub-replacement fertility levels, but actually maintains and, even in many White nations, rapidly increases. All through immigration. This is ethnic replacement. This is cultural replacement. This is racial replacement.”
Prior to recent years, the Great Replacement theory was seldom seen in the US context. What instead proliferated was a conspiracy theory known as the “White Genocide” theory, tracing back to the Jim Crow era and the political influence of eugenics. While the Great Replacement theory hinges on a fear of being overtaken by outsiders, the White Genocide theory rests on a fear of violence from the oppressed peoples within the nation itself — specifically, those who are or were enslaved.
White Genocide theory, in a nutshell, is the belief that black people within the United States will inevitably rise up and begin a race war within the country, resulting in the genocide of white people. Much like the Great Replacement theory, the roots of the theory can be traced back to the earliest days of slavery in the Americas and the fear of slave rebellion. The genocide is often believed to be plotted at the hands of a shadowy group or “New World Order” — also a coded term for Jewish people.
The term “White Genocide” emerged in the early 1900s, in Jim Crow America. One of the earliest proponents of the theory was a eugenicist named Madison Grant, who published a book titled The Passing of the Great Race in 1916. The text proposed the need for “racial hygiene” in the United States, and the need to separate out “non-Nordic European” immigrants from those hailing from Southern and “Alpine” Europe. The term next appears in White Power, the official newspaper of the American Nazi Party (called the National Socialist White People’s Party after 1966.) It was featured in an article which accused the feminist movement and the “birth control campaign” of curbing the reproduction rates of white people while not doing so in countries with primarily nonwhite populations, eventually leading to a future in which “whites will be outnumbered four to one.”
It was in 1978, however, the White Genocide theory in the United States exploded in popularity. Neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce, writing under the pen name Andrew Macdonald, self-published a racist novel called The Turner Diaries. The novel takes the form of the diaries of Earl Turner, a member of a white-supremacist army which attempts to create an Aryan revolution and overthrow the US government. The novel has been massively influential for violent white supremacists in the United States; it was a favorite myth of both “The Order” and the “Aryan Republican Army” — two of the most significant US neo-Nazi groups. The opening scene of the novel— in which a rented truck full of dynamite, ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and heating oil blows up in front of a federal government building shortly after 9 AM, killing hundreds of people — was replicated almost exactly by the Oklahoma City bomber in 1995.
Since that time, the White Genocide theory has been prevalent in white-supremacist discourses in the United States; one of its most influential proponents is white-supremacist leader David Lane, whose White Genocide Manifesto circulates widely in far-right communities. Though Lane is still in prison for having murdered a Jewish radio host in 1984, a copy of his manifesto is hosted on Stormfront — the popular posting ground for violent believers in the “white extinction” threat
Countless mass killers in the United States in recent years have named the White Genocide conspiracy as a key motivator. The man who killed three people and wounded several others in a mass shooting at a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kansas, in April 2014 believed in White Genocide. So did Dylann Roof, who killed nine people during a bible study session at a black church in Charleston, North Carolina, in June 2015.
A Critical Alignment
Of the two theories, the Great Replacement has arguably found greater purchase. Recent years have seen these two conspiracies come together, facilitated by the rise of far-right radicalization in online spaces and the current “transnational populist moment” in which we live. As white replacement theory propagates online (galvanized by anti-immigrant rhetoric from far-right populists the world over, from Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán), so does the belief in an all-encompassing “white, European identity” in need of saving.
As Wendy Brown notes in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, we live at a time when the increased permeability of borders and the rise of non-state economic powers (Google has a higher “GDP” than some nations) makes reinforcing the literal and metaphorical boundaries of the nation seem more important than ever. This means reinforcing the literal borders of the nation, as well as more conceptual racial and ethnic delineations.
This is certainly not exclusive to white-majority countries (as a look at the recent development of Hindu nationalism shows). But it helps understand the current rise of a “call-to-arms.” White Extinction theory has become immensely popular amongst a breadth of right-wing hate groups. The phrase “Jews will not replace us,” chanted by neo-Nazis at Charlottesville, was in direct reference to the belief that white replacement is being orchestrated by a shadowy Jewish elite.
Never all that dissimilar to begin with, these theories have dovetailed in online spaces. After White Genocide primed the pump, the Great Replacement theory has now also taken root in the United States, popularized by far-right personalities who populate the darker corners of YouTube, Reddit, Gab, and Twitter.
I won’t be amplifying these figures by naming or linking to them — you can read this report instead. Indeed, faced with the proliferation of these ideas, we should be pushing platforms like YouTube, Reddit, 8Chan, and Facebook to de-platform White Replacement conspiracy and treat it as hate speech, while also calling on web-host services like WordPress and GoDaddy to revoke the domains of white extremist blogs.
As we strive to de-platform and interrupt the algorithms of radicalization, we should also remember how mass murderers see themselves: as agents of a just and righteous cause. The El Paso shooter wrote that he could “no longer bear the shame of inaction knowing that our founding fathers have endowed me with the rights needed to save our country from the brink of destruction. Our European comrades don’t have the gun rights needed to repel the millions of invaders that plaque [sic] their country. They have no choice but to sit by and watch their countries burn.”
Such men believe they are fighting for their very existence. They even see themselves as heroic for risking their own lives. If we are to combat such notions, and indeed the escalating pattern of white-supremacist terror, then we need to learn the underlying conspiracies that motivate them — and fight against their claims.
This also means learning to recognize dog-whistling about “ethnic replacement” and understanding that people within our own communities might well believe it as fact. Though it can be difficult to engage with those who believe in such theories, it can do a lot of good to take part in conversations with empathy, facts, and persistence — both in real life and online (statistically speaking, such views are, indeed, most popular among young, white, very-online men). White Replacement theory is like a virus — and we all share a responsibility to inoculate our communities against it.