The so-called great replacement theory that helped motivate the 18-year-old alleged gunman in his reign of terror at a Buffalo supermarket on Saturday is often presented as a fringe ideology. But understand this: Large numbers of people have embraced the core fears at the heart of GRT (Great Replacement Theory is popular among white supremacists who push the racist falsehood that white people are purposely being replaced by people of colour) as an organising truth in their politics, their lives and their expectations to explain a future that feels out of their control.
That won’t likely change unless some White people work overtime to counterprogramme the replacement narrative. This is the necessary work of White Americans because minorities cannot alone dismantle an exploitive brand of fearmongering that is built around their very existence.
A poll released just last week found that GRT has gone mainstream, with one-third of American adults saying they think there is a deliberate effort to replace native-born US citizens with a wave of immigrants for political gain. That same poll found that nearly half of Republicans agree to some extent that there’s a deliberate intent to increase the numbers of immigrant voters to minimise the cultural and political influence of Whites.
Racist and baseless beliefs
Those numbers should not be all that surprising. If you have spent any time examining how minorities in the US have been treated, you might reasonably be concerned about becoming one. That hard truth does not in any way justify the tenets of GRT.
It is rooted in racist and baseless beliefs about innate superiority and unquestionable white privilege. And it has gained traction quickly because politicians and right-wing screeds are working overtime to amplify the fear that White people are losing their place as the comfortable majority in the United States.
I am going to be careful here in saying that not all people who embrace some part of GRT are white supremacists. But GRT is firmly rooted in white-supremacist ideology. It comes from a fear of losing automatic entitlements and opportunities if different people are allowed to stand as equals.
It feeds on the worry that Whiteness is no longer the organising force in everything that is understood to be quintessentially American, from history to beauty standards. Whiteness in the United States has been socially engineered to be defined as the dominant cultural default, and majority status was the guarantee against that claim.
A shift away from that has ushered in a period of tumult and vertigo for a growing number of people with the anxiety of not knowing what comes next.
The US population is becoming more diverse while the White population is ageing and producing fewer children. Less than half of US children under 15 are now non-Hispanic Whites, according to the Census. The most common age for Whites in the United States in 2018 was 58, according to the Pew Research Center. For the minority population, the most common age was 27.
We are now seeing, on a regular basis, just how incited and radicalised some maniacal Americans have become about these trends. We saw that tragically this weekend in Buffalo, where the gunman reportedly drove three hours specifically to target innocent Black shoppers at a grocery store. We saw it in Charlottesville, Va., where white nationalists carried torches and shouted, “You will not replace us.”
America’s 'racial make-up'
GRT is like the fertiliser that feeds and sustains white fear when America’s racial make-up is changing. These trends will continue and how that is explained — or alternatively exploited — will impact the safety and security of all Americans. But Black and brown people cannot inoculate fears that Whiteness is no longer America’s cultural default. White people have to do that themselves.
White Americans who care about democracy, who believe in the principles of fairness and equality, who believe that “we” is a more powerful word than “them,” need to step into this space armed with facts and righteous truths. White politicians, White business leaders, White clerics, White educators, White leaders and White influencers need to denounce the supremacist agenda at the core of GRT.
White Americans who say they are repulsed by that agenda need to get used to talking about white supremacy and the way fears about Black and brown people have historically been used to drive up gun sales and create a populist, vigilante agenda. The two words “white supremacy” make some people uncomfortable, exhausted or defensive. Well, you can’t solve a problem you are unwilling to name.
The fact that our diversity is part of our strength needs to be trumpeted, and White folks are the ones who need to be saying that. The fact that so many families are already diverse is part of the story that needs to be told. The people who lead diverse communities in sport, religion, education and the workplace need to speak up and demonstrate that Americans of various backgrounds can coexist and move together toward a common goal.
Not everyone who has drifted toward GRT will let go of the false hope and succour it provides. But GRT rose on the wind of fabricated rhetoric, and it will continue to flourish without a counter-narrative based on truth. When so much is at stake, silence is no longer an option. Don’t expect Black and brown people to defuse the time bomb they did not create.
Michele L. Norris is a noted American journalist