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The Origins of White Supremacists’ Fear of Replacement

This fear of being replaced can be traced to the French far right, but racist fears regarding supposed White genocide, and invasion by varied ethnic groups, go back centuries.

White supremacists carrying Identity Evropa flags march in Charlottesville, VA at the “Unite the Right” rally in August of 2017 (image by Anthony Crider via Wikimedia).

Where does the language of replacement and invasion cited in recent White supremacist rhetoric actually come from? While the immediate inspiration can be traced to the French far right, racist fears regarding demographic replacement, White genocide, and invasion by varied ethnic groups go back centuries.

In a manifesto posted on 8chan moments before the shooting, the El Paso shooter noted that he had not considered the Hispanic community a target in his massacre until he read The Great Replacement by French philosopher, politician, and poet Jean Renaud Gabriel Camus. The shooter’s manifesto noted:

This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion … Actually the Hispanic community was not my target before I read The Great Replacement.

Originally published in 2011, Renaud Camus’s Le Grand Remplacement describes the cultural crisis created by the replacement of European men and women in France and elsewhere in Europe by non-European populations. Camus sees the main threat within France in the form of predominantly Muslim migrants from the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa. Camus does not seem to recognize the irony of a White man from France writing a book railing against mass colonization. He points to increased globalism over nationalism, as well as the machinations of the European Union in explaining the forces behind the “great replacement” of Europeans with non-Europeans. Within the United States, white supremacists have latched onto it as a conspiracy of replacement and applied it particularly to immigrants from Latin America wishing to cross the southern border.

Like the El Paso shooter, the White shooter behind the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand and the one behind the Poway synagogue shooting near San Diego had similarly remarked within their manifestos that they had been inspired by Camus’s theory. Their references were not unique. On posters across many college campuses in the United States, White supremacist groups have posted similar slogans, such as “You Will Not Replace Us.” The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that the phrase itself was coined by White nationalist and founder of Identity Evropa Nathan Damigo. Identity Evropa is the same group that previously used white statues from classical antiquity and the Renaissance to advertise their cause on college campuses in the United States.

In August of 2017, marchers in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanted “They will not replace us!” and “The Jews will not replace us!” The theme links back to Camus, but is a defensive narrative with deep roots in racist rhetoric within European and United States history.

Since 2016, the website great-replacement.com (here is an archived version so we don’t drive traffic to them) has popularized and justified the movement using quotes from ancient as well as modern authors. As Vassar classicist Curtis Dozier has pointed to on his website Pharos, which documents the appropriation of ancient history by white supremacists, a quote from the Roman statesman and historian Cassius Dio writing about legislation created by the emperor Augustus (31 BCE–14 CE) encouraging Romans to marry and have children props up their views on purity. But all is not as it appears. Nandini Pandey, an associate professor of classics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and an expert on Augustus, notes that the Dio remark documenting that Augustus harangued the populace to “replenish the fatherland” is taken quite out of context. Dio himself perhaps also misinterprets Augustus’s original purpose in requiring bachelors to marry while also providing special incentives for the upper echelons of society to have children. Pandey remarked to Hyperallergic:

Roman marriage legislation and manumission laws were concerned with stabilizing the state by shoring up its class system, not with keeping out immigrants. The Romans found pragmatic and economic value in their empire’s multiculturalism and never developed ideologies of hate or exclusion. Twenty centuries later, we can still learn from their example.

Romans throughout the Roman Empire­­ — including Egypt, North Africa, and the Maghreb —would have universal citizenship by 212 CE, when they all became Romans. Pandey notes: “Romans, unlike us, never made laws discriminating on the basis of race, offered people of all colors opportunities for advancement and citizenship, and actively intermingled and intermarried with immigrants.”

Underneath their use of the Dio quote, the great-replacement site next provides a quote from Theodore Roosevelt linking the fates of ancient and modern civilizations.

But the curse of every ancient civilization was that its men in the end became unable to fight. Materialism, luxury, safety, even sometimes an almost modern sentimentality, weakened the fiber of each civilized race in turn; each became in the end a nation of pacifists, and then each was trodden under foot by some ruder people that had kept that virile fighting power the lack of which makes all other virtues useless and sometimes even harmful.

The quotation points to the fervent racism and growing popularity of eugenics at the turn of the century, as well as the use of the ancient world as a framework for understanding and then defending the need for increasing the White European birthrate. As Dozier notes, the Roosevelt quote is steeped in ancient imagery and the dangers of corrupting a civilization:

This quote from Augustus is followed by a quotation from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1917 essay “Dawn and Sunrise of History” concerning ancient history. Roosevelt argues that once the “fiber of each civilized race” had been “weakened,” the “curse of every ancient civilization” was to be “trodden under foot by some ruder people.”

In the early 20th century, the fertility of White people became a significant issue within the United States. Adam Domby, an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston and author of the forthcoming book The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory, noted in comments to Hyperallergic that politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt at this time became preoccupied with an issue called “race suicide.” The term had been coined by sociologist Edward A. Ross at the turn of the century and described what happened when the death rate of a race exceeded the birth rate. In 1910, Roosevelt gave a speech to the French Academy, noting: “The chief of blessings for any nation is that it shall leave its seed to inherit the land.” The French were greatly enamored with Roosevelt’s harangue to have more children in order to strengthen the nation. Linking White fertility to patriotism was a popular talking point in the early 20th century even well before the rise of Nazi Germany.

A 1903 political cartoon titled “Concerning race suicide” drawn by Samuel D. Ehrhart; the Library of Congress notes: “Illustration shows contrasting views of population growth, ‘The Idle Stork’ on the left has little to do as the upper class chooses not to make babies, whereas ‘The Strenuous Stork’ is being worked to death by a population explosion among the lower class” (image via the Library of Congress).

Scholars studying White supremacist rhetoric have pointed to the fact that Renaud Camus is not the first White man to propose population replacement as a danger to American society. Brandon R. Byrd, an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and author of the forthcoming book The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti noted to Hyperallergic that in the 1920s, Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World-Supremacy became a popular book in the United States. Byrd remarked on the close parallels between Stoddard’s views close to a century ago and those proliferating among White supremacists today:

Stoddard believed in the inherent superiority of white people (“Nordics”) but was fearful that his superior race would be surpassed numerically by inferior races who were more successful breeders. Stoddard’s definition of white was more exclusionary (i.e. not including southern and eastern Europeans) than the one deployed by current white supremacists but the similarity is there, no doubt.

Byrd points to the fact that arguments of superiority were then coupled with fear and finally, the use of legislation to reify these beliefs through law.

Stoddard’s fear of non-white population growth was coupled with his recommendation of immigration restriction in the US. That recommendation was born out in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. It seems clear to me that today’s white supremacists not only advance the same fears of non-white population growth but have also found similar success in influencing nativist policy, as evidenced by Trump’s proposed Muslim ban and the caging of children at our southern border. Third, Stoddard proposed a separation of races at a national level i.e. white nations for white people. That argument is still advanced, even by Penn law professors!

Stoddard was highly influential in the United States and in Europe. As Rebecca Futo Kennedy, an associate professor of classics and director of the Denison Museum, has written about, Stoddard was a Harvard-trained historian and a member of the KKK. He also later served as a consultant for the Nazi high command. Kennedy remarks that Stoddard debated WEB DuBois in Chicago in 1929 over his belief in the “natural inferiority” of non-Whites. His book Revolt Against Civilization (1922) also pushed the concept of a superior Western civilization, a term which Kennedy has shown to have racist roots but which continues to be used as a dog whistle for denoting White superiority today, as wielded by politicians such as Steve King.

A poster put up in July at Denison University in Ohio; the poster depicts the Christchurch gunman holding the book The Great Replacement along with an assault rifle; a star of David covers his mouth, a reference to Jewish people (image courtesy Rebecca Futo Kennedy)

In addition to the reemergence of the rhetoric of “replacement” and the superiority of the West is the current renaissance of the race “science” of the 18th and 19th centuries. Angela Saini’s new book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, documents the fact that the field never actually disappeared, but is indeed becoming more popular again and consistently used to underpin racist beliefs and policies. As Saini notes, “It is still the toxic little seed at the heart of academia. However dead you might think it is, it needs only a little water, and now it’s raining.” Although the alt-right may mock academia as too left leaning, members of White nationalist groups still eagerly grab at the chance to apply the patina of science or academic study to their racist notions.

White supremacist extremists are not simply plucking their talking points from the French far right or from early 20th-century theories. As reporters Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear noted in The New York Times, the shooters were not only inspired by Renaud Camus, they also appear to have absorbed the language of Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly harped upon the dangers of an American “invasion” headed by immigrants. His incendiary tweets and policies have repeatedly advertised the necessity to stop this purported assault through border patrols and walls. And we see this link between rhetoric and violence not only in mass shootings, but also in imagery posted on college campuses by White supremacists.

In terms of the relationship between this reemerging pseudo-scholarship and violence, we should perhaps look at the dangerous call to act that is embedded in many White supremacist theories. In a 2018 interview with the Gatestone Institute, a conservative thinktank, Renaud Camus reiterated the movement from ideology to action that is embedded in his dangerous philosophy:

Revolt, rise up, unite, regroup, go down the street, seize power. Stop letting yourself be led passively into the depths, and calling the few unfortunates who try to warn you nerds or paranoids or tin-foil hat guys. Support the National Council of European Resistance.

Moreover, although Trump and Camus have both publicly denounced mass shootings, their rhetoric has undeniably inspired and justified the actions of many White supremacists today. Just three months before the El Paso shooting, at a rally in Florida Donald Trump reportedly “laughed and joked after a supporter suggested shooting Mexican migrants.”

Afrosurrealist writer Sumiko Saulson recently remarked in an op-ed that there is an inextricable link between mass murder, White supremacy, and reemerging beliefs in anti-miscegenation policies. Of the El Paso shooter’s manifesto, she notes: “It is a hate filled treatise against race-mixing that specifically targets Mexican-Americans.” The growth in White supremacy, the rise in domestic terrorism, and the reemergence of centuries-old rhetoric warning against race replacement and invasion in the United States can no longer be refuted. To understand its root causes, we must look at the long history of pseudo-scientific ideas of racial purity and anti-immigration fears which underpin much of the justification for this violence. But to stop the violence, we must not only dismantle and disavow this rhetoric, but also pass much more robust gun control legislation.

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