How the 'Great Replacement' Conspiracy Is Fueling a Global Network of White Supremacy and Terror

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Two women kneel down to put flowers and candles on the sidewalk, in front of a Tops supermarket.
Carlee Taggart of Chicago and Robyn Harpell of Virginia Beach light candles at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York, on May 16, 2022. The fatal shooting on May 14, of 10 people in a historically Black neighborhood by a white gunman, is being investigated as a hate crime and an act of racist violent extremism, according to federal officials. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The heavily armed 18-year-old man who allegedly opened fire in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket last Saturday, killing 10 people and wounding three others — most of them Black — was an adherent of a white supremacist conspiracy theory that's become increasingly espoused by the mainstream political right.

The "Great Replacement," as it's known, was referenced in the 180-page manifesto the alleged shooter wrote and posted online before driving some two hours from his home to indiscriminately murder Black people in one of the worst racist mass shootings in recent U.S. history.

The unfounded notion, one rooted in racist and antisemitic fanaticism, posits that the U.S. is growing increasingly diverse — the only accurate part — because elite Jewish liberals are importing non-white immigrants to “replace” white Christian people as part of a diabolical scheme to fundamentally reshape American politics and society.

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Moreover, many white supremacists — the alleged shooter among them — insist that the influx of immigrants will, if unchecked, soon lead to the extinction of the white race.

White supremacist conspiracies, like this one, have always existed in some form or another in American society (not to mention many others), and often form the fuel that ignites horrific, racist acts of violence, like the tragedy that unfolded last week in Buffalo.

Earlier this week, KQED Forum examined the "Great Replacement" and other racist conspiracies, and the alarming tendency they have to rapidly seep from the extreme fringes into mainstream political discourse, and the devastating real-world impacts they can incite.

The following — edited for brevity and clarity — includes excerpts from Forum host Mina Kim's discussion with guests Wajahat Ali, New York Times contributor and author of the book “Go Back to Where You Came From”; Otis R. Taylor Jr., managing editor for KQED News; and Teresa Drenick, deputy director of the Anti-Defamation League's Central Pacific Region.

MINA KIM: The term "the Great Replacement theory" is popping up everywhere in the wake of the Buffalo shooting. What is it exactly?

WAJAHAT ALI: The replacement theory is a conspiracy theory that has emerged from the defeated swamps of neo-Nazis and white supremacists which says that the Jews are the head of an international cabal that is using Black folks, brown folks and immigrants to replace and weaken Western civilization. They believe there's a natural order and that white, straight men are at the top.

It's called a theory — replacement "theory" — but what we're seeing is that it's morphed into an ideology.

WAJAHAT ALI: It's always been an ideology, right? It's one of those things that existed once on the fringe. It's always been here in a way. You just have to be a student of American history.

What's terrifying now is that a literal white supremacist conspiracy theory that once existed only on the fringes is now being promoted by GOP elected officials like Elise Stefanik (R-New York), the No. 3-ranking Republican, and nightly on Tucker Carlson’s highly rated [Fox News] show.

I'm hearing a lot of echoes in what Wajahat is saying in things that you [Otis R. Taylor Jr.] have said about progress being met with backlash. I know that you have been analyzing that backlash and extremism in California rearing its ugly head. Can you talk a little bit about that?

OTIS R. TAYLOR JR.: Just this morning [Monday], my colleagues Alex Hall and Julie Small released a story about two extremists that plotted to blow up a Sacramento building, actually Democratic headquarters. Now, the language that they used is consistent with this ideology that has infected white men, not just in the last few years, but throughout history. As was said, once there is progress, there is this backlash.

But California isn't immune. California, since its inception, has been adversarial against people of color, particularly Asian people and Black people. So when we see what happens in Buffalo, we can't think that that can't happen here. What that tells me is that this idea that was once on the fringe is mainstream and it's crisscrossing the country and more and more people will be impacted by that violence.

And just to underscore that this is in California: One of the killings that's being brought up was the [2019] attack on the Poway synagogue and how the 19-year-old gunman there also posted this racist screed full of antisemitic and racist statements about the European race needing to be protected. I mean, we see it here, we've seen it in Charlottesville [Virginia], in Charleston [South Carolina], and in El Paso [Texas]. We're at a point where people are feeling incredibly inundated.

WAJAHAT ALI: Oftentimes we live in our own silos and we say, “We’re overwhelmed. That’s [someone else’s] issue.” But white supremacy is coming after all of us. Like you mentioned, this replacement theory has been the radicalizing ideology that inspired mass shooters in New Zealand and El Paso, Texas, and now Buffalo, New York. They all copycat each other.

Another group that also gets attacked — and it's important for people to know — is white people. White people who do not subscribe to this ideology or white people who are allies [to people of color] are seen as race traitors, and in American history, they were also seen as targets who were killed and shot.

This is a national security threat. It is the No. 1 domestic terror threat in America. This is global terrorism against people of color, immigrants and anyone [who white supremacists] see as a threat to their vision.

Are you saying that regional differences really don't matter, especially given the fact that so much of this is on our global internet?

WAJAHAT ALI: Well, yeah, exactly. I'll give you a very quick example: This terrorist who shot and killed 10 people in Buffalo was inspired by a terrorist who shot and killed more than 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. That terrorist was inspired by [the man] who killed more than 80 people in Norway. This is an international, globalized network of hate that is radicalizing individuals to commit terror against people of color. It is an international terrorist network.

Who are the people that put this hate speech into action? What are the data showing you? 

TERESA DRENICK: The data is showing that throughout the United States, we are seeing just an incredible rise and proliferation of white supremacist propaganda. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League issued our most recent study that shows propaganda distribution remains at historic levels across the entire country in 2021. We reported over 4,800 cases of racist, antisemitic and other hateful messages that proliferate throughout the internet, throughout banners, flyer drops, stickers that we see put up on campuses, in neighborhoods. And, you know, we're not seeing an end to this.

How does the internet influence people's determination to commit these acts?

TERESA DRENICK: Given the rise of social media and the ease with which messaging can be sent instantaneously throughout the cyberspace, these specific regional white supremacist and hate groups are operating everywhere all the time and influencing young people, influencing people who are going to these websites. And it's a new phenomenon and it's a growing phenomenon that we're seeing.

Otis, you have been dismayed at the extent to which this has proliferated and how little has been done to stop it on the social media platforms where these conspiracies often circulate.

OTIS R. TAYLOR JR.: Just to underscore how much a problem this is, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a unit in January to investigate domestic terrorism. This problem has been able to proliferate because of the easy access to connecting with people through social media. Take, for example, what happened in Buffalo. It was livestreamed. That is intentional, not only to spread fear, but also to encourage others to participate in these kinds of acts of premeditated violence.

And of course, the platform Twitch says they took [the video] down within two minutes. But that video is readily accessible on any number of platforms right now.

This is about white fear and what happens when that fear reaches a boiling point. People act out and there's people who will pay the consequences of that fear. In fact, we have an entire party that is based on how to escalate that fear: how can they tap into that fear so they can win elections, not to help people, but just to spread more fear.

So let's talk about that proliferation. Liz Cheney said [in a tweet], “The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse.” So, this is Liz Cheney, a GOP leader, saying this and also tweeting that GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them. So explain why, Wajahat, that the GOP needs to take responsibility as well?

WAJAHAT ALI: I mean, don't take my word for it. Listen to Liz Cheney. She's finally taking ownership over what the GOP and the right-wing movement have been doing for more than 50 years, through the Southern strategy, which has been using these racist dog whistles to try to do a divide-and-conquer tactic between white workers and Black, Latino and Asian workers that is trying to stoke this racial anxiety and cultural anxiety, trying to terrify them, that they're being replaced by the Mexican laborers or the Muslims or the Asian Americans who spell really well: "They're the ones taking our job."

It's what we saw Donald Trump do with this just open bigotry: "We need a Muslim ban," and, "The invaders are coming." And right when he said that, right before the 2018 midterm elections, that same language was used as rationalization to attack the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and killed 11 people.

Now, why do I say the Republican Party is responsible? Because even though this Buffalo terrorist was not handed a gun by Tucker Carlson, Tucker Carlson and Elise Stefanik and GOP leaders in the right-wing ecosystem nonetheless dipped the bullets in the same ideological poison. They emerged from the same ideological infrastructure. Elise Stefanik decided last year to take out Facebook ads promoting the replacement theory.

So if you can't even condemn the replacement theory, if you can't even condemn a white supremacist conspiracy theory, then what does that say about your party? And here we are. And they still haven't condemned it.

I want to dig in a little bit in terms of how this ideology is expressed on TV. What's different about the way this speech is presented on TV versus what we were just discussing about the internet?

OTIS R. TAYLOR JR.: White supremacists used to have hoods and robes designed for them. Now they wear designer clothes, designer suits. They no longer need to wear a mask.

“America First” and “Make America Great Again” have nothing to do with the citizens of this country. It is about promoting ideology.

So when you watch Tucker Carlson, it's, “Hey, I'm just questioning this. This is what a good journalist does. And the fact that I'm questioning this, does that make me a racist?”

He almost makes a mockery of anyone who wants to express a desire to help people of color that have long been marginalized and oppressed in this country. In fact, there's the culture war brewing in this race to get the Republican nomination of who can be the most racist, who can be the most anti-woke.

This is nothing that's different. This is what the [modern] Republican Party has always been about messaging, about being pro-life, about securing our borders, because the coded language there is, “They're coming for your jobs. They're coming for your family. They're coming for our white women. They're coming to sell you drugs.” And Tucker Carlson has benefited from that because his audience is largely white.

But influential Republican leaders, like Elise Stefanik, are quick to denounce these acts of violence and insist they have never advocated for any racist positions. So unpack that for us.

WAJAHAT ALI: I've never met a racist in America. Nobody in the history of America is a racist. Have you noticed that? I've never met anyone. Even the KKK weren't racist. When you ask the KKK, they said, "We're not racist. We're just trying to defend the white race, we're just trying to defend the white people. That's all. We're fine with Black people if they just go to their own countries." Encountering a racist is like finding Bigfoot — it's impossible. And yet somehow, magically, racism proliferates.

And so there's a couple of tactics that the right wing does. Tucker tries to Trojan-horse these white supremacist talking points on a show by doing the following: “I'm just asking questions. Can't we just ask questions? Here, let me Trojan-horse this by asking a question.”

By doing this repeatedly, you move over to the window of ... what [once] was considered forbidden that is now considered acceptable discourse. Then the second thing they do is, "Well, we're just kidding. Well, we're just joking." Or, “We're not just journalists. We're not reporters. We're just entertainers. We're just joking. These are just jokes.”

And then the third thing they do is a projection — deflection. They project onto the majority what they're actually doing. “It's actually you, the left, that's radical. It's actually you, the liberals who are racist. In fact, you and Otis are the race hustlers playing the race game by calling everyone else a racist.” That's your deflection. You call all of us white supremacists.

And what we say is, no, I'm calling you white supremacists because you act and behave and talk like a white supremacist. And the failure of institutions and the majority and many — not you — of our media colleagues is they fall for it like Charlie Brown and Lucy in the football episode. And they do both-sides analysis. That's the same thing as the right wing with its wealth of white supremacist talking points.

Both sides are extreme, and that's how you launder and mainstream and Trojan-horse what was once fringe white supremacist talking points into mainstream talking points that are now believed by half of Republican voters and a third of American voters. And this is how you normalize hate. It's happening right before our eyes.

So, what can we do about this?

OTIS R. TAYLOR JR.: What we're seeing is what I believe is a lack of representation. The Bay Area is 60% people of color. California, the state, is majority people of color. But the majority of representatives in Sacramento and in Bay Area politics are white people. In fact, in the Bay Area, it's 60% white people who represent the majority people of color.

WAJAHAT ALI: I get asked this question a lot: “I'm nobody and I'm not on TV like you. And what can I do? I'm overwhelmed. There's so many problems.” And I always say, "I love nobodies. Some of my favorite people are nobodies. I'm a nobody."

At the end of the day, we can only control our own intentions and our own actions. And I understand that everyone's overwhelmed. And so what I would recommend people doing is the following:

No. 1, have awareness, be aware of what's happened in this country.

No. 2, make an intention to do something.

And No. 3, then act. Act at the local level. First and foremost, act at the local level. Specifically, these forces that want to literally flatten us and violently remove us, are taking over school boards, city councils, medical boards. There's no reason why you — yes, you listening right now — cannot run for office. Look at some of the Republicans who are elected. The bar is low. I want you to run for office. I want you to represent yourself in your community. I want you to show up.

What they want us to do is be intimidated. We get intimidated. We don't show up. They take over. They want us to cede the ground. We have the numbers. We just need to flex the numbers. We have the majority.

I'd also say, be the America you want this country to be in your daily actions. If you're a parent, model this type of language and these values in your home. You'll be influencing generations.

If you're at a workplace, speak up, speak out, speak out for others to change the culture of your workplace. Look for equity, equal wages, opportunities. Reach out to folks who are marginalized and try to bring them in, mentor them.

When it comes to media, call up your local newspaper, be a resource for them or speak up. Say something like, “Hey, how come you didn't have a voice talking about X, Y and Z?”

And then also, vote if you can, because the largest group that does not vote is the people who can vote but don't vote. Right, everyone says Republicans and Democrats. The biggest chunk of the pie are people who are eligible to vote in this country and they choose not to vote. You have to vote. Don't be on the sidelines. Don't choose apathy. Don't choose cynicism. We have to have you to invest in hope and invest in this country. And that means getting in the ring and being made to be felt uncomfortable and making other people feel uncomfortable. This is the only way.

And finally, you have to build a multicultural coalition of the willing. This is affecting all of us. So reach out and link up with other groups because we have the numbers. We have to flex them.