On Saturday, May 14, white supremacist Peyton Gendron drove 200 miles from his home in Conklin, NY, to open fire in the only supermarket in the Black neighborhood of East Buffalo. Gendron killed 10 people and injured three. 11 of the 13 victims were Black people. Gendron, who was armed with a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, was wearing body armor, a military grade helmet, and a head-mounted camera, through which he livestreamed the entire massacre on Twitch. Although Twitch removed the stream, the gruesome video is still circulating on the internet.
This massacre is not an isolated incident. Crimes of this nature have been increasing in number. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics from 2020 registered the highest number of hate crimes in over a decade. Nearly two of every three hate crimes reported in 2020 were motivated by race, according to the FBI.
More significantly, the massacre can be viewed not only as an example of white supremacist violence, but as a microcosm of US white supremacy itself. The deep scars of segregation, eugenics, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and racism are reflected in this crime from beginning to end.
A self-proclaimed racist
In his own words, the shooter was motivated by racism. His 180-page so-called manifesto, much of it copied directly from the Christchurch shooter’s own manifesto, details his descent into racist extremism:
“Before I begin I will say that I was not born racist nor grew up to be racist. I simply became racist after I learned the truth.
I started browsing 4chan in May 2020 after extreme boredom…There I learned through infographics, shitposts, and memes that the White race is dying out, that blacks are disproportionately killing Whites, that the average black takes $700,000 from tax-payers in their lifetime, and that the Jews and the elite were behind this…We are doomed by low birth rates and high rates of immigration…I didn’t care at the time, but as I learned more and more I realized how serious the situation was…perhaps there is a chance that we can combat this. Maybe there is a chance that we can take control and prevent our genocide.”
Gendron directly cites other white supremacist terrorists like Dylann Roof, who shot and killed nine Black people in a church, and Anders Breivek, a Norweigian anti-immigration terrorist who killed 77 people, as inspiration for the attack. Gendron wrote a few of the names of these killers directly on his assault rifle, including several racial slurs and derogatory phrases. While Gendron carried out his massacre as an individual, he traces his actions to a long tradition of white supremacist terrorism.
Great Replacement Theory
Where exactly does this tradition come from? The 180-page “manifesto” refers repeatedly to a right-wing conspiracy named the “Great Replacement Theory”. Great Replacement Theory claims that elites (sometimes specified as Jewish elites) are deliberately depopulating the white race by bringing in people of color through immigration, racial integration, and low white birth rates. This theory has been referenced by other shooters in their respective manifestos such as Patrick Wood Crusius, who murdered 23 people in El Paso, Texas in 2019 in a shooting targeting Latinos.
Extremist racists believe that the end goal of the “great replacement” is to eliminate the white race. The “white genocide” conspiracy theory makes similar claims. The popular white supremacist 14-word slogan, which Gendron also referenced by writing “14” on his rifle, is a call to arms for white people to defend their race from such replacement: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
White supremacist groups, who were emboldened to unite openly in the infamous 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, shocked the nation with images of white men chanting “Jews will not replace us!” Heather Heyer, 32-year-old anti-racist protester, became a casualty of this rally when neo-Nazi James Alex Fields drove into a crowd of protestors.
Recently, mainstream news outlets such as FOX News and Republican politicians have also begun promoting “Great Replacement Theory” with a watered-down conclusion: that Democrats are deliberately changing the ethnic demographics of voters in order to win more votes. Implicit in this are the longstanding fears of white supremacists that white people will go extinct in the US.
Political commentator Tucker Carlson of FOX has been especially vulgar, stating on his show, “in political terms, [the Democrat’s] policy is called the ‘Great Replacement’, the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.” Republican politician Elise Stefanik has released campaign ads claiming that Democrats want a “PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION,” and are planning to “grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” Many have begun to place blame on FOX News and GOP politicians for mainstreaming the hateful rhetoric that inspired Gendron.
these tucker carlson "great replacement" clips are just from the last year and I may have missed a few. pic.twitter.com/l04NvLJq2C
— John Kerr (@JohnnyHeatWave) May 15, 2022
The ancestors of “Great Replacement”
While FOX News and the Republican Party are certainly gaining political points and a dedicated audience from their promulgation of Great Replacement, they are not generating new ideas from scratch. As writer and cultural critic Michael Harriot wrote, “In a sense, the ‘great replacement theory’ is just a new name for the [US] white majority’s longstanding fear that their power and authority will eventually be usurped by a non-white majority.” Many of the most notorious racially-motivated massacres in US history, such as the Tulsa massacre of 1921 in one of the wealthiest Black neighborhoods by disgruntled whites, or the attack on Black voters in 1866 in New Orleans, were motivated by this fear.
The day after the massacre in New Orleans, the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune read:
“If there is any question as to who constituted the dominant population of Louisiana, we think it is now settled…and the sooner the negroes learn this, and learning it, reject and cease to follow the unwise counsels of the restless leading men who are only leading them to their ruin, the better. Let what will come, of this they may be assured, the white races of Louisiana will remain masters.”
The idea of “great replacement” or “white genocide” was popularized in part by eugenicist Madison Grant, author of the book “The Passing of the Great Race”. In this book Grant wrote,
“Neither the black, nor the brown, nor the yellow, nor the red will conquer the white in battle. But if the valuable elements in the Nordic race mix with inferior strains or die out through race suicide, then the citadel of civilization will fall for mere lack of defenders.”
Eugenics, or the ultra-racist set of theories and practices aimed at eliminating “undesirables” from the gene pool in favor of politically dominant groups like white people, can be seen as an earlier version of Great Replacement Theory. Eugenicists were paranoid that people of color, disabled people, and other marginalized groups were “sullying” the human, or specifically the white race by reproducing.
Eugenics was no fringe theory. Some of the world’s wealthiest, like the Rockefellers and the Carnegies bankrolled the practice of eugenics, funding German Nazi eugenicist scientists like Josef Mengele.
In the United States, the theory of eugenics resulted in one of the greatest national tragedies: the mass sterilization of Puerto Rican, Black, and Native American women by the state and the medical system. This sterilization is still being practiced today in places like the Irwin county detention center in Georgia, where immigrant women recently underwent coerced hysterectomies.
If eugenicist practices are still being carried out by the state, and “Great Replacement Theory” is being promoted by mainstream media and politicians, one must wonder how “fringe” white supremacy truly is in US society.
Racism made the massacre easier to carry out
Gendron, like many US white supremacists who carry out massacres, was not shot on sight by police. Instead, police carried out “deescalation” tactics, peacefully detaining Gendron. Police reacted the same way to Dylann Roof, going as far as buying him a burger when he said he was hungry. This stands in stark contrast to the treatment of Black people by US police. According to Mapping Police Violence, Black people are almost 3x more likely to be killed by police than white people.
In response to a reporter’s comment during a press conference, about how if the shooter had been Black, he would not have been alive, the Buffalo police commissioner made the excuse that Gendron did not point his gun directly at officers. On the other hand, 12-year-old Black child Tamir Rice was killed for playing with a toy gun, which he did not aim at police. Cases like Tamir’s, in which unarmed Black people are executed by US police, are too frequent to list in this article, but notable examples include George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner.
Other factors of institutionalized racism played a role in the shooting. Socialist activist India Walton, a Buffalo native, in an interview with Democracy Now pointed to the deep-seated history of segregation as a key part of this massacre.
“There is a broader conversation that has to be had, right?,” Walton said. “The former fire commissioner’s mother was in that grocery store because it is the only place for Black folks to shop on this side of town, right? So, this is not only a question of a lone actor who is a white supremacist; it is a conversation that has to be had and a policy that has to be made to undo the systemic harms that have been caused by a structure of white supremacy that has not only permeated the United States of America, but it also has trickled down into cities just like Buffalo. Like, you know, we know that 80% of the population of the East Side of Buffalo are people of color, are Black people specifically, and they have one place to shop. And now they have zero places to shop, because we don’t know when our grocery store is going to open back up on the East Side.”
The Tops grocery store is the only grocery store in the Buffalo’s East Side. Before Tops, the area was a food desert, with little to no places to buy fresh produce, a phenomenon all too common in communities of color in the US. Walton calls this ‘food apartheid’: “It is a policy decision. Deserts are naturally occurring, and the fact that there is no food on the East Side of Buffalo and there’s not the availability of these basic services is a policy choice.”
The existence of only one grocery store in the East Side made it all too easy for Gendron to commit a massacre. In his manifesto Gendron admits not only to targeting the zip code for its Black population, but had even researched when the neighborhood’s grocery store would be the busiest.
If FBI statistics are to be believed, white supremacist hate crimes are on the rise. Furthermore, as proven by Gendron’s own words, these shooters inspire each other. As progressive activist Nina Turner wrote on Twitter, “Reminder: white supremacy isn’t mental illness—it’s upheld and reinforced systemically in this country. America cultivates this.”