While the ideas behind the Great Replacement Theory, or "replacement theory," stretch back centuries, the term was first popularized in the 2011 essay "Le Grand Remplacement" by French novelist, conspiracy theorist, and white nationalist writer Renaud Camus. The far-right theory holds that global elites are actively working to "replace" white Europeans (or, in the United States, white Americans) with non-white immigrants and that this "great replacement" will conclude with the extinction of the white race.
The National Immigration Forum writes: "The 'great replacement' theory, in simple terms, states that welcoming immigration policies — particularly those impacting nonwhite immigrants — are part of a plot designed to undermine or “replace” the political power and culture of white people living in Western countries."
While the theory found its way into the mainstream in recent years, thanks in part to the rise of online communities and increasingly dangerous political rhetoric, this theory's roots go back centuries. The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that racist authors have been warning white people about their imminent demise for centuries:
In 1892, British-Australian author Charles Pearson warned that one day soon, white people would “wake to find ourselves elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside by peoples whom we looked down upon.” His book National Life and Character launched a genre that included even more apocalyptic visions of white extinction from American authors, including the racist and antisemitic New York lawyer Madison Grant.
Grant’s own scientific-racist 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, warned of the decline and extinction of America’s “Nordic” racial stock. (Scientific racism is the discredited, pseudoscientific belief that scientific evidence exists to support racism and racially biased state policy.) Grant did not write from the fringes: His book influenced the widespread adoption of eugenic policies, restrictions on non-white immigration and anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. in the interwar period. (Eugenics is a debunked pseudoscience whose believers are obsessed with controlling heredity through hateful notions like “racial hygiene” to preserve supposedly superior races and ethnicities.)
Proponents of this theory often use the word "invasion" to describe immigration. The phrase "global elites" is also frequently found in posts about the great replacement, a term that harkens back to long-standing, anti-Semitic theories about the world being secretly controlled by Jewish people. The replacement theory has taken root in white supremacist circles as it reflects their "14 words" rallying cry. The Anti-Defamation League writes:
The “great replacement” philosophy was quickly adopted and promoted by the white supremacist movement, as it fit into their conspiracy theory about the impending destruction of the white race, also know as “white genocide.” It is also a strong echo of the white supremacist rallying cry, “the 14 words:” “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
The theory has been at the heart of several deadly incidents over the years. In May 2022, for example, the alleged shooter behind a deadly attack at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood left behind a screed that cited the Great Replacement Theory as a reason for the attack. This screed echoed (and in some case plagiarized) the text left behind by the gunman who killed 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019.
Feuer, Alan. “How Buffalo Suspect’s Racist Writings Reveal Links to Other Attacks.” The New York Times, 16 May 2022. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/16/us/buffalo-shooting-replacement-theory-christchurch-el-paso.html.
Jones, Dustin. “What Is the ‘great Replacement’ and How Is It Tied to the Buffalo Shooting Suspect?” NPR, 16 May 2022. NPR, https://www.npr.org/2022/05/16/1099034094/what-is-the-great-replacement-theory.
“‘The Great Replacement:’ An Explainer.” Anti-Defamation League, https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/the-great-replacement-an-explainer. Accessed 18 May 2022.
“The Racist ‘Great Replacement’ Conspiracy Theory Explained.” Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2022/05/17/racist-great-replacement-conspiracy-theory-explained. Accessed 18 May 2022.