Terrorism expert explains why the Great Replacement theory is so central to white racist ideology

Alex Henderson | AlterNet | May 18, 2022


White supremacists and neo-Nazis marching at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, Wikimedia Commons

Chicago-based history professor Kathleen Belew, author of the 2018 book “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” is known for her expertise on the dangers of white nationalist and white supremacist terrorism — a subject she has addressed in the classroom as well as in her writing and her guest appearances on MSNBC. And Belew explains why a far-right conspiracy theory known as the Great Replacement is so important to the white power movement in an op-ed/essay published by the New York Times on May 17.


Belew’s article was published three days after a mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, where ten people were randomly killed. Law enforcement officials allege that the 18-year-old suspect killed his victims simply because they were Black and was motivated by white nationalist ideology and a belief in the Great Replacement — which claims that liberals and progressives in the United States and other countries are trying to “replace” whites with non-white immigrants from other countries.


“It’s not immediately obvious how the ‘Great Replacement’ theory, often framed as anti-immigrant doctrine meant to preserve predominantly white societies, is connected to the shooting of Black customers and employees at a grocery store in Buffalo last weekend,” Belew explains. “Those at the store, who lived over 100 miles away from the man accused in the killings, were simply going about their lives: picking up groceries, buying a birthday cake, taking their children for ice cream. But the explanation for both the choice of targets and the brutality of an attack that killed 10 people can be found in the history of the theory. In the American context, it has in its cross-hairs a host of future targets — among them, democracy itself.”


Belew, who has been teaching at the University of Chicago but will be starting a new position at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois (a Chicago suburb) in July, is typically described as a history professor and author, but the term “terrorism expert” also describes Belew — as she is known for her insights on the motivations behind acts of white nationalist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi terrorism, past and present. Many pundits in the right-wing media, including Fox News, have been pretending that radical Islamist groups such as ISIS (Islamic State, Iraq and Syria) and al-Qaeda are the only terrorists who pose a threat to the U.S., but countless incidents — most recently, the Buffalo massacre — underscore the terrorist threat that far-right white racist ideology poses.


According to Belew, the Great Replacement theory is “the latest incarnation of an old idea: the belief that elites are attempting to destroy the white race by overwhelming it with non-white groups and thinning them out with interbreeding until white people no longer exist.” And it reflects an “obsession with protecting white birthrates.”


“For decades,” Belew observes, “white-power activists have worried about their status as a majority. They see a looming demographic crisis and talk about when their community, town or the United States will no longer be majority white. Even when demographic change slows, this fear has not abated.”


Belew adds, “This belief transforms social issues into direct threats: Immigration is a problem because immigrants will outbreed the white population. Abortion is a problem because White babies will be aborted. LGBTQ rights and feminism will take women from the home and decrease the white birthrate. Integration, intermarriage and even the presence of Black people distant from a white community — an issue apparently of keen interest in the Buffalo attack — are seen as a threat to the white birthrate through the threat of miscegenation.”


Belew emphasizes that the fear and paranoia behind the Great Replacement theory “is never only about immigration.”


“When gunmen write about ‘replacers,’ they might just as easily mean any person of color, whether they have American roots or not,” Belew explains. “Replacement theory is about the violent defense of whiteness.”


The Great Replacement theory, in its 21st Century incarnation, originated in France with author Renaud Camus and his 2011 book “Le Grand Remplacement,” which claims that French liberals and progressives in France are trying to “replace” France’s white population with non-whites. But as Belew has been pointing out, variations of the “replacement” concept existed among white supremacists and white nationalists long before that. And she finds it troubling that MAGA figures like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (now the third highest-ranking Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives) have been “mainstreaming” the Great Replacement theory.


“It is impossible to separate Replacement theory from its violent implications, as decades of terrorism by its adherents shows us,” Belew warns. “The mainstreaming of replacement theory, whether through Tucker Carlson’s show or in Elise Stefanik’s campaign ads, will continue to have disastrous consequences…. Clearly, this is not a fringe idea anymore. Decades of violence at the hands of extremists tell us that such ideas will lead to further violence. Mainstreaming of the idea means that the window for action is closing.”


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