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What Is White Replacement Theory? Explaining The White Supremacist Rhetoric

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The Anti-Defamation League is renewing its call for Fox News to fire Tucker Carlson for his advocacy of what they say is Great Replacement Theory or White Replacement Theory. It's an old idea once on the fringes of white supremacist dogma, and it's not only being openly embraced by people like Carlson, but elected Republican politicians have also made such arguments recently. Kathleen Belew is the co-editor of "A Field Guide To White Supremacy" and an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago. Good morning.

KATHLEEN BELEW: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's start with what White Replacement Theory is and its origins.

BELEW: So Great Replacement Theory is sort of the latest term for an old set of ideas. And we've seen this appearing in one form or another at least throughout the 20th century. The idea is that somehow, nonwhite people or outsiders or strangers or foreigners will overtake the United States via immigration, reproduction and seizure of political power. One reason that the ADL is sensitive to this issue is that many incarnations of this theory involve a supposed cabal of Jewish elites.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, those are sort of canons of white supremacist thinking. I'm going to play some of what Tucker Carlson has said.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

TUCKER CARLSON: Now, I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term replacement - if you suggest the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the third world. But they become hysterical because that's what's happening, actually. Let's just say it. That's true.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And one of the highest-ranking members of the House, Republican Elise Stefanik, said in a Facebook ad that the left's plan to grant amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.

BELEW: The Stefanik quote is particularly interesting because it's doing two things at the same time. It's fanning flames that somehow, incoming populations of immigrants will pose an antidemocratic threat to the country. I'll come back to that in a second. It's also reclaiming language that, right now in our debate, is really about January 6, when people who support President Trump aligned with white power activists to attempt an antidemocratic action against the entire country, possibly an act of domestic terror. Now, when we think about the idea that incoming immigrants necessarily pose an antidemocratic threat - that is inextricable as an idea from nativism and the idea that the United States should be somehow a white nation. And we've seen this come up at moments of sort of inflows of immigration from different parts of the world. But here we have a very sort of overt articulation of this, partly because so much of the debate as it relates to Haitian immigration is racially charged in a different way than it has been.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, why do you think it is finding more purchase among some groups? Because as you mention, this is tapping into something that has been happening for a while, which is sort of the weaponization of immigration to tap into white fears. But why might this be different than other earlier periods of immigration fear-mongering?

BELEW: So I think the very different thing here is that this is no longer a fringe idea. And what we are seeing is the move from sort of a looking away position where, for instance, after the El Paso shooting of Latina and Latino people in the Walmart a number of years back, there was a memo by the GOP directing our attention away from white power activism and towards mental health. So this directing our attention away has now moved to an open embrace by pundits, by people in the party of a overtly white power tenant. So this is escalating. This is coming into our halls of power in a way that we have not seen in the recent past.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, what strikes me is that the Republican political class are no longer in the business of solutions to issues around immigration. There's no attempt anymore to discuss immigration reform in any real sense. And Fox is rebuffing the ADL's call for Tucker Carlson to be fired. The network denies what he says is racist, and they say he's merely talking about voting rights. So if people like Carlson and members of the Republican political class are unlikely to be censured, then how do you think this bubble bursts?

BELEW: I mean, I think part of what we have to understand is that issues like anti-immigration and nativist fervor are part of a system of beliefs that's attached to a lot of other moving parts in our political landscape. One of the big push factors right now is the new census numbers that just came out that show that American communities are becoming more multiracial. American families are becoming more multiracial. A lot of us see that or think of it as a soft demographic change. But people in the white power movement have long seen that as a attack, an apocalyptic state of emergency that foreshadows racial annihilation. And I think that that sense of concern is boiling over into a whole lot of other places that are not so overtly racist and overtly violent.

But if, for instance, we expect a demographic change to eventually take the country to the left, which is the common sort of political belief in the Democratic Party, that only works if all the votes are counted. So this is attached to redistricting. This is attached to gerrymandering. This is attached to disenfranchisement efforts and the gutting of drive-in voting and vote by mail. All of this is, like, a mechanical exercise of disenfranchisement that's attached to white supremacy in some really persistent ways. And it's going to take an enormous amount of work to sort it out and secure a democratic process.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I would only add that all immigrants are not liberal or progressive or Democratic.

BELEW: Absolutely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kathleen Belew is a historian, an expert on extremism at the University of Chicago. Thank you very much.

BELEW: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR'S "ANTHEM FOR NO STATE, PART II") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.