A racist mass shooting that left 10 people dead in Buffalo, New York, put national attention on a concept that has alarmed experts in extremism for years: "replacement theory" or the "Great Replacement."
The attack targeted Black people, and the man charged in the shootings purportedly wrote a hate-filled document nearly 200 pages long, as well as hundreds of pages of a personal diary posted online before the shooting, that cited the conspiracy theory extensively.
The racist belief was the shooter's primary motivation, according to experts who studied the documents. Authorities worked to definitively link that file to the suspect, Payton Gendron, 18.
Before and since the attack, political commentators have sparred over what exactly replacement theory is. They debate whether the concept that matured on extremist websites and chat rooms is really the same as the talking points used by mainstream conservative pundits and politicians.
Understanding this idea, and its connection to hate crimes, requires examination of what replacement theory is – starting with what it is not.
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What replacement theory is NOT
There’s widespread consensus among demographers that the racial and ethnic makeup of the American electorate is changing. It always has. Broadly speaking, if demographic trends continue, experts expect white Americans will become less than the majority of the population toward the middle of this century.
Legal and illegal immigration, combined with generally higher birthrates among nonwhite U.S. residents, mean that the country is shifting toward an electorate that is majority nonwhite. Demographers at the Brookings Institution used census data to estimate that whites will become less than 50% of the U.S. population around 2045.
Whites will still be the largest single racial group, but they will be outnumbered by nonwhite voters, according to census predictions.
Predictions aside, the fact that demographic change exists in America is not what replacement theory is.
That involves a further crucial step.
What replacement theory IS
The ingredient that transforms a widely agreed-upon statistical phenomenon into a fallacious conspiracy theory is the assertion that these demographic changes are orchestrated – specifically for political gain.
According to replacement theory, the changing racial makeup of the country is not a natural or organic process but an organized effort by a powerful and shadowy group.
For many pushers of this theory, that shadowy group is the Democratic Party and other liberals, assisted by an imagined Jewish cabal, said Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“Instead of saying that nonwhites are coming here and replacing white people, the language that is used is 'We're having an invasion over the border' and that this liberal administration and Democrats are letting in these immigrants from Third World countries with the purpose of changing the demographics of this country,” Mayo said.
There’s been no evidence that this is happening.
In the months before the Buffalo shooting, high-profile figures reiterated this allegation.
Who promotes replacement theory?
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who hosts one of the highest-rated shows in prime-time TV, made repeated claims about replacement in recent months, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Border Patrol union President Brandon Judd pushed the theory during a TV appearance on Fox.
Neither they, nor provocateur Ann Coulter or others, have offered any evidence that an organized effort is underway to change the American electorate.
Nor was evidence found on white supremacist websites, forums and chat rooms where this theory gained popularity. Replacement theory rubs shoulders with other pseudoscience and disproven racist and hateful tropes that haven’t been embraced by mainstream conservative pundits.
The racist extremists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, chanting, "Jews will not replace us," a motto of the replacement theory crowd, offered no proof for their claims that they are being systematically replaced.
Would one political side benefit if replacement theory were true?
There’s a lot of discussion about how significant demographic change is in political terms. Experts have long debated the idea that people of color are more likely to vote for left-leaning political candidates.
Take the Sunshine State, said Allen Orr, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“In areas such as Florida, a large number of people who are Hispanic, and some even Latino, vote Republican,” Orr said. “So the concept that immigrants only vote for one party is ridiculous.”
Even if white Americans become less than a majority of the population, they may not become less than a majority of voters, said William Frey, a demographer and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Frey said the assumption that voting results will be immediately altered by the changing racial makeup of the population is overly simplistic. White people, particularly older white people, are statistically much more likely to vote in elections than Hispanic people in their 20s and 30s, for example, he said.
People who cross into the country illegally may never be able to vote in elections, he said.
"In the short term, I don't know that these changes make much of a difference to elections," Frey said. "Turnout rates in all elections tend to be highest for people in their 50s and 60s, and not high at all for the 18-to-20 and 20-to-34 age group, which is the group that's become more ethnically diverse."
Electoral district boundaries mean nonwhite populations may still not be equally represented.
Did the alleged Buffalo shooter believe in replacement theory?
Law enforcement officials have remained tight-lipped about the slew of documents the man charged in the Buffalo shooting may have posted online before the attack. Experts who studied the documents told USA TODAY they have no doubt they were written by him.
They include a rambling document, much of which was copied almost verbatim from a similar document posted by a racist mass shooter, and hundreds of pages of posts made on the instant messaging platform Discord.
These documents spell out that the author was obsessed with replacement theory. The main document includes the word “replace” 32 times. In the Discord diary, the author details his warped reasoning for an attack and cites as inspiration racist mass shooters inspired by the theory.
“Based on those documents, there’s no doubt that replacement theory was the main contributing factor of the attack,” said Kesa White, a researcher who tracks extremists at the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University.
Where did replacement theory come from?
White supremacists have discussed the idea of a concerted effort to "replace" voters in majority white countries in Europe, North America and Australasia for decades.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the theory originated in early 20th century French nationalism and books by French author Maurice Barres. The French writer Renaud Camus popularized the term in a 2011 book "The Great Replacement."
In this country, the concept of a "replacement" of white people has been honed by a modern breed of white supremacists who are concerned less with promoting pseudoscience about the superiority of white people and more with convincing white people that they are under threat, Mayo said.
"It is essentially saying that this country is going to be changed drastically," Mayo said. "Many even go further and say it's going to lead to the destruction of the country on some level."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Great Replacement Theory: What it means, where it came from