Just before a 21-year-old gunman from Allen, Texas, killed 22 people and wounded several others in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, he posted a screed on 8chan. The shooter complained about a Hispanic invasion, predicted whites soon would be replaced as the country’s dominant ethnic group, and ominously promised to do something about it. After he was apprehended, he told investigators he had targeted Mexicans.
In the wake of this shooting, we also need to confront the so-called “great replacement” theory that gunmen in El Paso, Poway and Christchurch all referenced before their attacks. In particular, we need to confront the incomplete, self-serving history that underpins it. That “history” looks a lot like a genre of speculative fiction called “alternate history” that games out what the world would be like if key figures were never born, major events never happened, or leaders had different motivations.
White nationalists are using this alternate history to normalize and legitimize white grievance by bringing ideas such as “the great replacement,” “white genocide” and “eco-fascism” into the mainstream. If we call out the shooters but fail to denounce and thoroughly stigmatize the theories that inspire their carnage, we abet the normalization process. Theories such as the “great replacement” are used to radicalize mass shooters.
The “great replacement” theory argues that menacing forces are trying to destroy white, Christian “homelands” by flooding them with other racial and religious groups. The most commonly referenced “homelands” are Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The identity of replacers varies by country. In Europe, Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and Africa are most often singled out. In the U.S., it’s Hispanics and Jews. The sinister forces assumed to be behind the replacement are equally varied. “Pro-immigration forces,” “global elites,” the Pope, and even technology have been accused of orchestrating replacement.
The theory’s solutions to replacement are undemocratic. Its advocates argue that white women should be encouraged, or even forced, to have a lot of white babies and white homelands should limit immigration, refuse refugees and revoke citizenship for non-whites.
The great replacement is not a new idea. White supremacists in the U.S. have always worried that other races would replace them. The contemporary iteration of this view was laid out in a 2011 book, “Le Grand Remplacement,” by French philosopher, Renaud Camus. He argued that global elites are trying to turn France into a Muslim country for Arab and African peoples. The result would be the wholesale destruction of French culture. The book is now as popular in U.S. far-right circles as it is in European ones.
The notion of white homelands is key to the “great replacement” theory. Homelands are depicted as the natural outcome of a race developing its own culture and religion in the places best suited to them. But only in an alternate world could anyone describe the “white homelands” mentioned above as naturally white or Christian. Europe was pagan until the Romans brought Catholicism to the empire in the 4th century. You don’t have to look that far back into history, though, to find an example. El Paso was Mexican before it was American, Spanish (and briefly French) before it was Mexican, and indigenous before it was Spanish. Indigenous peoples, Spaniards, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans all have older claims to the city than white Americans do.
The idea that El Paso is naturally white also begs the question — what makes someone white? Defining who does (and doesn’t) belong to a given race is always a fraught endeavor. If European heritage makes you white, then fear of Hispanics makes no sense. The Americas were “discovered” by Christopher Columbus, an Italian from Genoa working on behalf of the Spanish Crown. And, it was Spanish conquistadores who colonized Mexico, a territory that included El Paso until 1845. Hispanics have as much claim to European heritage as the descendants of settlers from Britain or Germany do.
It is also worth remembering that Europeans from countries now considered unquestionably white — such as Ireland — were not considered white when they first came to the United States.
The “great replacement” theory isn’t taught in schools. Its recent iteration is an import from the European far-right, transmitted to Americans on Twitter, Facebook and far-right message boards such as Gab, 4chan and 8chan.
But America is not a white homeland. Since 1492, indigenous nations and three colonial powers (Britain, France, and Spain) have laid claim to American territory. Africans were brought here in chains; America became their homeland by force. Contemporary America is a mix of the descendants of all these people and a homeland to all of them.
Groups on the far right believe white Christians have a greater claim to this country than other racial and religious groups. But our real history says otherwise. We need to vigorously defend the reality of America — on social media, in our places of worship, in our workplaces and with our families. Only in the absence of our voices will this noxious, inaccurate view of America become normalized.
Carolyn Gallaher is associate dean for faculty affairs at American University’s School of International Service. Her research focuses on organized violence by non-state actors and urban politics. She is the author of “On the Fault Line: Race, Class, and the American Patriot Movement” (2003) and “Peace: Loyalist Paramilitaries in Post-accord Northern Ireland” (2007).