What is Replacement Theory? How it's tied to modern mass shootings

This weekend's mass shooting in Buffalo, New York has put a spotlight on a consuming fear among some Americans: losing influence.

European descendants have long been the predominant population in America. The 2020 census revealed 62% of Americans identify as "white" only. Still the majority, but down 9% from the previous census in 2010. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who identify as multi-racial has nearly tripled.

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Believers of "Replacement Theory" see those numbers as an existential threat. They fear what will happen if non-white people become the majority in places traditionally dominated by European descendants. They view the rise in diversity as a slow genocide.

Some Replacement Theorists are so afraid, they've taken it upon themselves to stop people who they think are trying to ethnically replace them.

Themes of Replacement Theory have been cited in manifestos from numerous mass murderers in the last several years, including the following incidents:

Now, the confessed perpetrator of this weekend's mass-killing in Buffalo admits to targeting the location, because it was in a Black neighborhood. He claims the shoppers wanted to "ethnically replace my own people." Screenshots that appear to be from the shooter's livestream of the attack show the number 14 inscribed on his gun. It is believed to be a direct reference to the 14-word white supremacist slogan.

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According to the Anti-Defamation League, Replacement Theory believers have historically blamed the Jewish population for helping non-white immigration thrive in America, making the theory not just racist, but also anti-semitic.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, tells the Associated Press that Replacement Theory is gaining mainstream prominence in what he calls baseless suggestions that Democrats are encouraging immigration from Latin America so more like-minded potential voters replace "traditional" Americans. 

There is now debate over whether some modern politicians and political influencers are leveraging that fear to gain votes. Rep. Liz Cheney is openly condemning her own party leadership saying they have, "enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism" in a tweet posted after the attack.

Critics of Replacement Theory point to recent data that appears to debunk, if not at least, poke major holes in, the common political talking points about migrants bringing crime and taking jobs:

  • A 2020 study from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University found immigrants create more American jobs than they take, saying immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
  • In 2020, the U.S. Justice Department compared crime rates between undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and native-born US citizens in Texas from 2012-2018 and found native-born Americans are twice as likely to be arrested for violent, two and a half times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over four times more likely to be arrested for property crimes. They note arrests of undocumented immigrants was stable, if not decreasing, during that time that spanned the Obama presidency and part of the Trump presidency.

How common is Replacement Theory in America? That is somewhat unclear, but in a poll last week, The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found about 1 in 3 Americans believe a plot is underway to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for political gain.

The Associated Press Contributed to this report.