Retracing the descent of replacement theory into racial terror
On March 12, Donald Trump issued a warning to his followers during an anti-critical race theory tirade: “Getting critical race theory out of our schools is not just a matter of values, it’s also a matter of national survival. We have no choice, the fate of any nation ultimately depends upon the willingness of its citizens to lay down and they must do this, lay down their very lives to defend their country. If we allow the Marxists and Communists and Socialists to teach our children to hate America, there will be no one left to defend our flag or to protect our great country or its freedom.”
Two months later, an 18-year-old gunman from Conklin, NY, drove three hours to Tops Supermarket in Buffalo’s predominately Black neighborhood of Masten, and murdered 10 people. The gunman posted an online manifesto, steeped in the fascist doctrine known as “the great replacement theory” in order to justify his killing spree. It explained that he was not “born racist” but became racist once he “learned the truth.”
The manifesto parrots many of the white supremacy infomercials featured in segments of Fox News—but also details how the gunman, a self-proclaimed fascist, received his education in hate online. Guest lecturers in his miseducation include bad-faith promoters of white racial essentialism like Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo, the architect of the right-wing moral panic over critical race theory, and Andrew Sullivan, who adopted former Manhattan Institute fellow Charles Murray’s Bell Curve theory to explain differences in IQ among racial groups.
Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Fox News may not have explicitly chartered the massacre in Buffalo, but they are certainly cartographers for the fast-mutating dogmas of white supremacy. The Buffalo gunman is but the most recent navigator of the constellation of racial animus in America, and has followed its premises to its longstanding program: the infliction of domestic terror against Black Americans.
Here is Sullivan writing about race and IQ:
It was only by reading—and checking—the actual data in The Bell Curve that I discovered what my educators had withheld from me. These differences really do exist; they exist outside the black-white paradigm (for example, the resilient IQ differentials between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews); the bell curve for Asian-Americans is higher on the IQ level than whites; and these differences are not entirely dismissed by accounting for socio-economic class or culture. A huge amount can be attributed to environment. But not all—unless IQ was a trait unlike any other in human experience.
Unlike Sullivan, the Buffalo shooter avows his racism (“yes, I am racist because I believe in differences of capabilities between races,” “I would call myself a white supremacist. I believe the White race is superior in the brain to all other races”). And like Sullivan, he uses genetics as a rationale for his beliefs. Here’s Sullivan’s geneticist account of alleged intelligence gaps:
My deepest objection is to the very concept of “race” as we measure it. It’s far too crude and too vague a term to be of much use as an empirical matter. But am I convinced that genetics has nothing whatsoever to do with IQ? Sadly no. Genetics have a role in explaining all human activity and experience. It would be bizarre if IQ were the only exception to this general rule.
And here’s the Buffalo killer’s manifesto on the same subject:
In conclusion from all of this, blacks are predispositioned to have weaker brain ability due to genetics. This is important because it leads to the question if blacks should live in a western world built by Whites. The answer to this question is no, they simply are not built to live in the White world. This advanced human civilization that we have today can only be built by Whites, blacks simply hold us down.
Again, it is important to note Sullivan is not advocating domestic terrorism or violence. But Sullivan is offering a rationale that domestic terrorists can readily seize on to excuse their actions. The same intellectual opening for the recourse to racial terror crops up in the manifesto’s citation of Christopher Rufo’s crusade against critical race theory—which is now a common refrain in Republican campaign pitches:
The education system (long since fallen to the long march through the institutions carried out by the marxists) controls them. Ask yourself what have progressives progressed? Teaching white children to hate themselves and their blood? Teaching non-whites to hate our people?
But beyond all this reckless slander, there’s a grim irony here: All the faux-apoplectic rage Fox News and Republican campaign strategists have spewed toward critical race theory has helped demonize and erase a line of intellectual inquiry that would help us better understand why the gunman chose Masten, Buffalo as his place of attack. Critical race theory may not have prevented the massacre in Buffalo, but it could have explained the reason why Buffalo, a city that is 35 percent Black, has concentrated much of its Black population—71 percent—in Masten. (The killer’s hometown of Conklin, by contrast, is 89 percent white and 1 percent Black.)
The Buffalo gunman is but the most recent navigator of the constellation of racial animus in America, and has followed its premises to its longstanding program: the infliction of domestic terror against Black Americans.
In other words, the population that the mass shooter in Buffalo imagined to be overtaking his own mythologized white America was in fact marshaled into an under-resourced and neglected stretch of the city under the pressures of racial capitalism. Buffalo, like most major U.S. cities in the twentieth century, was segregated along the redlined flows of capital into a starkly segmented real estate market—a harsh financial version of apartheid greeting many African Americans who had relocated to northern cities as part of the Great Migration to escape the racial terror of Jim Crow rule. The Federal Housing Agency mapped urban areas and demarcated the degree to which neighborhoods should qualify for home loans via data such as the percentage of “negroes” already living there, and patterns of “shifting and infiltration.” The neighborhoods were divided into four categories, with “A” being the least financially risky to “D” the least stable. Masten was classed as a “C”-level loan risk—a “declining” neighborhood.
This stigma of decline was soon imprinted on Buffalo’s ambitious modern-era redevelopment initiative—which worked to further insulate Masten from middle-class American prosperity.
The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA) was established in 1934 to eliminate slums and purchase property for the construction of public housing. In the 1940s, the state of New York adopted a slum clearance program. Dante Place was considered to be a substandard area in the City of Buffalo, “not only in terms of physical decline of its building but in its reputation for social unrest.” In 1952, Dante Place was destroyed to create the Dante Place Project.
Initially, the Dante Place Project was one of the city’s most diverse public-housing locales. In 1954, 36 percent of occupants were African American; many of them had been displaced from the Ellicott District during the construction of Ellicott and Talbert Malls in 1953-1954.
In 1957, the development of the Kensington Expressway displaced many of the city’s Black residents—together with a broad array of other redevelopment programs that further divided Buffalo’s social geography along racial lines. The Dante Place Project now accommodated Black residents who had been displaced from the construction of the Expressway, but in 1960 the complex was changed from low-income to middle-income and Black residents were relocated to homes within the Masten District.
It didn’t take long for the bank-orchestrated “decline” of Masten to gain fresh momentum. Buffalo’s 1965 Community Renewal Program states: “Although at the time there was a sufficient number of adequate housing units available, the relocation program failed to take into account the residential exclusion problem that restricted the movement of non-whites…The impaction of these two areas in turn led to the speeding up of the process of blight formation in the remainder of the Ellicott and Masten areas.”
This history, needless to say, was lost on the Buffalo gunman, who considered Black Americans to be “occupiers” of “white land” who threatened to replace white people—the anxiety that Tucker Carlson routinely platforms on the top-rated cable news show in the country. The gunman in Buffalo drove three hours to murder members of a population that had long been displaced, and seen their life chances diminished, under the logic of racial capitalism. It was as though the political heirs of Andrew Jackson had gone on to demonize the Cherokee Indian nation, brutally exiled from their Southeast homeland to the arid Southwestern interior along the Trail of Tears, as an all-powerful and fast-multiplying “occupying force.”
Yet the core doctrine of replacement theory has gained a level of influence in American political discourse that the dissections of urban racial geography pioneered under critical race theory can’t begin to compete with. According to the New York Times, Carlson has echoed the paranoid racist refrain that white people are being “replaced” on more than 400 episodes of his show. Even after the Buffalo massacre, Republican political leaders continue endorsing the precepts of replacement theory as simple demographic fact.
But the alleged descriptive value of replacement theory is far less to the point for right-wing demagogues than the xenophobic, racist, and violent ends that it serves. Here, for example, is Carlson on the June 17, 2019 broadcast of his show, warning that Central Africans immigrating to the United States will “overwhelm our country, and change it completely and forever—and our viewers should know that.” Within two months, a gunman killed 23 shoppers in an El Paso, Texas, Wal-Mart—targeting people of Latin-American descent and explicitly citing replacement-theory doctrine.
The online manifesto of the Buffalo gunman likewise says that the shooting was an anti-immigration and “partisan action” taken against an “occupying force”—even though none of his intended victims were recent immigrants. This points up another ugly feature of the logic behind replacement theory thinking: all nonwhite peoples can be designated enemy combatants at a moment’s notice, according to the animus dictated by the self-styled defense of white America.
Even after the Buffalo massacre, Republican political leaders continue endorsing the precepts of replacement theory as simple demographic fact.
This is what’s ultimately so perverse about cautions among some members of the media and political establishment to refrain from “politicizing” the fallout from the tragedy in Buffalo: the reasoning that spurred the gunman to arm himself, deck himself out in protective combat gear, and drive three hours to carry out the massacre politicizes the act of human procreation from the word go. (In this regard, it also parallels the blatantly racialized logic of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked opinion seeking to overturn the right to reproductive choice, but that is an essay for another occasion.)
Here again, Tucker Carlson supplies chapter and verse: On August 14, 2021, Carlson said “Democrats are intentionally accelerating demographic change in this country for political advantage, so rather than convince people to vote for them, that’s called democracy, they’re counting on brand-new voters.” Carlson’s tantrum was driven by census data that showed the number of people who identify as white is declining. During the segment Carlson criticizes people who “gloat over the decline of a race.”
These sentiments, too, are prominent in the gunman’s manifesto, which spins out a baroque racialized conspiracy out of the well-documented human drive to reproduce:
Children of replacers do not stay children, they become adults and reproduce, creating more replacers to replace your people. They grow up and vote against your peoples own wishes, for the interests of their own people and identity. They grow up and take the potential homes of your people for themselves, they occupy positions of power, remove wealth and destroy social trust.
Since the shooting, conservatives have tried to distance themselves from the consequences of this belief system, but that doesn’t change the heinous truth of the matter: Ten people are dead, only because of the color of their skin. In the wake of the Buffalo massacre, Carlson ran a chyron on his show that said “Democrats should treat people like human beings.” This is a calculated, bad-faith distancing of Carlson’s controversial media brand from the many ways in which the Buffalo killer followed his opportunistic lead—for example, by chastising conservatives for “not believing in race.” Whatever may blare across the bottom of a Fox News broadcast, this shooting is not of the Democrats’ making; perhaps Carlson and his vast following on the American right should reflect on what, precisely, it means to be human.
Anthony Conwright is a writer and AAPF fellow living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @aeconwright.
Featured image: Family members of 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield who was killed during a mass shooting at Tops market listen as attorney Benjamin Crump speaks during a press conference on May 16, 2022, in Buffalo, New York. A gunman opened fire at the store on May 14, killing ten people and wounding another three. The attack was believed to be motivated by racial hatred. Photo by Scott Olson, Getty Images