What is replacement theory?

May 19, 2022

Replacement theory is in the news after a shooter cited the theory as his motivation for opening fire in a grocery store in Buffalo over the weekend, killing 10 and injuring three.

Roughly three in ten Americans are at least somewhat concerned about the core principle of this theory — that “there is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants who agree with their political views.”

It’s important to remember that the vast majority of people who believe this theory do not think it justifies the Buffalo shooter’s actions. This doesn’t solve the dispute over replacement theory, but it’s important to keep in mind as we try to understand why someone else agrees/disagrees with the theory.

So, what is replacement theory?

People agree that current trends in birth rates and immigration mean white people are becoming a minority in the US. What we disagree about is 1) what’s causing that trend and 2) what it means.  

To those who disagree with replacement theory, it’s appalling that so many believe such a baseless, explicitly racist conspiracy theory. White people are becoming a minority because of natural trends, not an intentional effort. Any white person who believes this theory is just nervous about being treated as poorly as they treat minorities now — but that racism will not be replicated.

To some who subscribe to replacement theory, the active effort to replace white people with non-white people amounts to intentional white genocide. Others who subscribe to the theory are generally unhappy or concerned that white people and culture are slowly disappearing from the country, but aren’t calling it white genocide.

But why do they see it that way?

People who reject replacement theory do so because they believe:

  1. The current trends in demographics are purely natural — a result of white people individually choosing to have fewer children, and individuals choosing to seek out a better life in a new country. 
  2. Replacement theory was created by white supremacists who used the theory to argue against interracial marriages, in favor of minority sterilization and eugenics, and immigration restrictions on non-white countries (including from Ireland and Italy). It was even used by Hitler to justify the Holocaust.
  3. No one in the US except Native Americans has an inherent claim to this land, so keeping others out is selfish. Anyone who comes to America to make a better, honest life for themselves should be welcome.
  4. Minority cultures have been dismissed or invalidated throughout history because they were excluded from economic, social, and political power. White people will not be oppressed nor will their culture be erased when they do inevitably become a demographic minority.

People who believe in replacement theory do so because they believe:

  1. White people and culture play an important role in society and must be protected from the threat of erasure. 
  2. Democrats are letting in massive numbers of unvetted immigrants without concern for how this impacts the safety and job security of Americans because they stand to gain from it politically.
  3. Democrats have proved they are more sympathetic to the plight of non-white people (no matter their nationality) than to the struggles lower and middle class white Americans face. They care about the erasure of non-white cultures, but call it racist when white people are concerned about the potential erasure of theirs.

What does pluralism look like when we're divided over this?

When it comes to an issue that feels so directly threatening to people on both sides, it’s really hard to fathom existing in the same country as the people who disagree with you. So what does pluralism look like on this issue?

Pluralism offers us two choices when we encounter disagreement: respectfully engage or respectfully disengage.

Despite what we’re told, if talking about the topic diminishes your ability to fulfill your responsibilities by damaging your mental health or causing anxiety, respectfully disengaging is a good option. Given the fact that political debates rarely end up changing anyone’s mind, the choice to disengage can often be effective in making the world a better place, because you’ll have the time and energy to take care of yourself and your community.

If you feel called to engage, it’s critical that you make an effort to understand the other side within their own terms. This doesn’t mean agreeing with them, nor does it mean we cannot be offended by their views. But if you choose to engage with someone who disagrees with you on this or any issue, it often does more harm than good when we refuse to listen to their views, motivations, and concerns. Conversations that don’t start with trying to understand the other person within their own terms will only lead to further frustration and polarization by reinforcing our worst ideas about the other

Finally, remember that when we engage in conversations where our starting positions are very far apart, it’s unreasonable to expect the other person to agree with you on everything by the end, even if you approach the conversation in the best way possible. Be patient, and remember that every person’s views are shaped by a complex web of experiences and values, many of which you won’t agree with.

What do you think? Do you agree with one side, or do you fall somewhere in between? Give us feedback on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook, or by emailing info@narrativesproject.com.