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How California popularized the Great Replacement

Episode Summary

How the racist conspiracy has some roots right here in the Golden State of the 1990s.

Episode Notes

On Saturday, a heavily armed 18-year-old white man rolled up to a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo, N.Y., and killed at least 10 people. The suspect is said to have committed the act to stop the so-called “Great Replacement,” a conspiracy theory that gained popularity among the far right across the world in recent years.

Its premise says that a secret cabal of elites are supposedly helping people of color take the place of white people. In the United States, the great replacement theory was turned into political strategy and policy long ago. And it started here, in California.

Today, we hear how the Golden State helped the fringe conspiracy go mainstream. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times columnists Erika D. Smith and Jean Guerrero

More reading:

Column: I’m part of the ‘great replacement.’ It’s not what believers say it is

Column: Buffalo shooting is an ugly culmination of California’s ‘Great Replacement’ theory

Column: How the insurrection’s ideology came straight out of 1990s California politics

Episode Transcription

Gustavo: Aaron Salter Jr., Celestine Chaney, Roberta Drury,  Andre Mackniel, Katherine Massey Margus Morrison, Heyward Patterson, Geraldine Talley, Ruth Whitfield, Pearl Young. 

This past Saturday, a heavily armed 18-year-old white man rolled up to a supermarket in a predominantly black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York and massacred everyone I just named. 


The killer said he did it to stop the so-called great replacement. It's a conspiracy theory that's gained popularity among the far right across the world in recent years. 

Its premise says that a secret cabal of elites are supposedly helping people of color take the place of whites. 

Here in the United States, the great replacement theory was turned into political strategy and policy long ago. 

And it started… in California.

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Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to The Times, daily news from the LA times. It's Wednesday, May 18th, 2022. 

Today we hear how the golden state, liberal blue California, how it helped the fringe thought go mainstream.

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Gustavo: Erika D. Smith and Jean Guerrero are my fellow columnists for the Los Angeles Times. Erika, Jean, welcome to the times.

Erika: Thanks for having me on

Jean: great to be here.

Gustavo: So Erica, the 18 year old shooter who showed up at Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York and killed 10 people, he came with a plan. What was it?

Erika: Yeah his plan basically was to kill as many Black people as possible. I mean, that's, what's come about, as we know about him dropping his manifesto online somehow, or sometime before the shooting, but basically he had scoped out the store, to the point of actually going there and actually walking or trying to walk the aisles. He basically just wanted to shoot as many people as possible have picked that specific location because it had one of the highest concentrations of Black people closest to his house in rural New York. And so he basically tried to execute his plan.

Gustavo: And what was motivating him?

Erika: Well, he's a racist. I mean, that's the thing that's become clear. The FBI and, and authorities in general are investigating him. And this crime is a hate crime of extremism. But, you know, from his manifesto, from other things, it's clear that he believes in this idea of the great //replacement theory, which is this idea that people of color, Black people, immigrants, Jews are replacing // native, born white Americans.

Gustavo: So what does this idea, not even if it's just not the name, great replacement, but the idea that colored people are trying to take over white lands, where does that come from?

Erika: Well, there's many different roots in history. I mean, I think a lot of it comes from, you know, World War II and this idea of Jewish people replacing people of color. I mean, obviously there's antisemitism, that's tied into this. But in California, as you know, and as a lot of Californians know, in the '90s, that was the story here, right? It was Mexican immigrants that are replacing white people, that are taking up all the resources, are going to change the culture of American culture and for the worse and suck up all the resources, all of those things. 

Gustavo: But I'm also thinking like, even during the days of slavery, like white folks always had it either in the back of their mind or the front of mind. "Oh, we, we gotta be careful. We gotta be careful. All these people are going to take us over one day."

Erika: It's a theory that's been recycled throughout history, usually white people against people of color--and definitely that was the case during slavery.This idea of controlling the Black population, so whether it's everything all the way up until interracial marriage, but this idea of // having too many Black people to overwhelm white people, whether it's in the voting box that we saw of the struggle for voting rights, whether it's interracial marriage, just slavery in general, the idea of replacement theory has gone back for, for years and decades and centuries.

Gustavo: And Jean you've written a lot about this, especially, you know, through decades, through clampdowns in immigration from Asia and Latin America and Eastern and Southern Europe, through the eugenics movement. And Erika mentioned earlier, there's always been haters, but in the 1990s in California, Jean, when you and I were teens, the Republican party took this whole idea of quote "invasion" into a completely new era.

Jean: Exactly. I mean, and it kind of started with this book called "The Camp of the Saints" from the white supremacist, Jean Raspail, which was a 1973 French white supremacist dystopian novel that was translated to English and spread this idea of great replacement across the United States.  It's this terrible book that depicts brown refugees as animals and as monsters whose arrival is going to ensure the destruction of white people. And that book greatly influenced people like Stephen Miller, who is Trump's senior advisor and speech writer.

tape: There is no constitutional right for a citizen in a foreign country, who has no status in America, to demand entry into our country.

Jean: He pedaled those ideas through Breitbart, especially during the Trump campaign.

tape: Such a right, cannot exist, such a right will never exist. This is an ideological disagreement between those who believe we should have borders and should have controls. And those who believe there should be no borders and no controls.

Jean: He really helped to re-mainstream these ideas that had been really //dormant for many decades in the United States, after the eugenics era.

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Jean: In the eugenics era, I mean, people // really believed this race-based pseudoscience, this idea that you needed population control for non-white people because, you know, they believed in the superiority of whites.

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Jean: Like one of the main promoters of the eugenics movement was Galton, who was a cousin of Charles Darwin. And he was just like, //completely confused about Darwin's theory of natural selection. Like he completely neglected his cousins', finding that diversity and genetic variation is key to the survival and strength of a species, the degradation and deterioration of results from homogeneity, not diversity. Diversity is actually the secret to the survival of life, but this eugenics era belief that the Darwinian theory of natural selection is what led to like mainstream white supremacy in the early 1920s. Then that's why they had these immigration quotas that limited entry from non-white countries. And they had forced sterilization of tens of thousands of women, mostly Black and Latina women. But after World War II, this really went dormant and really just was revived and became resurgent in the 1990s because of these white supremacists who brought ideas from France into the United States.

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Gustavo: And then those white supremacists, they started pushing, they started talking. And then you started seeing policy in California, specifically based on those ideals.

Jean: Exactly. That's when you saw governor Pete Wilson, blaming all of the state's problems on immigrants on a quote unquote invasion.

tape: We have sent the national guard to back up the border patrol. And we have sued them once and twice and will again to compel the federal government to secure the border against the illegal immigration. And to relieve California taxpayers from the unfair burden of paying for the costs of illegal immigration.

Jean: We saw all of this hysteria about like, quote unquote, third world replacement of the California population, this idea of multiculturalism threat to Western, aka white, civilization., As a result of that hysteria and racism, you saw attacks on affirmative action. You saw a tax on social services for undocumented communities. You saw a tax on bilingual education and really just this persecution of primarily Latinos in California, which ultimately is what ended up turning the state a deep blue, because it led to the political mobilization of these communities who realize that their lives and their communities' livelihoods were in danger.

Gustavo: Yeah. A lot of people, they see California, oh, super liberal, super blue. Then you tell them this history and they're just shocked at it. What was it about California in the 1990s that made it so ripe for something like, everything that you just mentioned to become so widespread.

Jean: Well, essentially it was demographic change. It was the fact that California underwent rapid demographic change in the 1990s. Where non-Hispanic white people became a minority for the first time that decade. And politicians saw in the racial anxieties that that created an opportunity to distract and to rally people politically around campaigns that were not meant to address any real problems, but simply to endanger the lives of communities of color.

Gustavo: And then Erika, what was a winning platform in California--basically xenophobia and racism--the Republican party took national in the two thousands and all the way to this day.

Erika: Yeah. I mean, Trump has obviously a manifestation of that as Jean just talked about, but I think, you know, in a lot of ways, the breakthrough moment, I think for a lot of this talk, at least on a national level once again, was probably the Unite the Right rally in Virginia, back in 2017. And that's, if you remember, is when people were walking through the University of Virginia's campus // shouting "Jews will not replace us." You know, "You will not replace us."


Erika: That was that breakthrough moment.

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Erika: I think for a lot of people to know what this was. And it became, you know, what was part of politics. I mean, Trump started it in 2016. It's just accelerated ever since

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Gustavo: We'll be right back.

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Gustavo: Jean, Erica mentioned that Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and that slogan "you will not replace us," that started getting cited by people who went on to do all these massacres, uh, you know, leading up to what happened in Buffalo.

Jean: And that phrase has roots in this other French, you know, I mentioned the "Camp of the Saints," that French dystopian novel. There's another book that was inspired by that one called "The Great Replacement: Le Grand Remplacement by the French author // Renaud Camus. And he's the one who popularized this idea that demographic change is an existential threat to white people. And instead of seeing demographic change as a morally neutral reality, they paint it as this dangerous thing that's going to result in white genocide, basically. That's it's gonna blot out and wipe out white people. It's a complete distortion of the  reality of what demographic change really means and it's all rooted in vitriolic racism and fear.

Gustavo: And after the Unite the Right rally, you start seeing these massacres where the killers are citing great replacement. I'm thinking, you know what happened at a synagogue down in Southern California in 2019, the El Paso massacre, where you had someone drive hundreds of miles specifically to this very Latino city so he could kill as many Latinos as possible.

tape: Our values have no color, no race and not cultural show. Let us walk towards together towards a better world in which all minorities are equally respected.

Gustavo: Pittsburgh, another synagogue where the killer there said, I'm going to kill all these Jews because they're the ones who are letting in all these quote unquote invaders. 

tape: The bullet holes are too numerous to count, but we will rebuild because we're a tree of life. We've been here 154 years, and you can cut off some branches, but the tree will continue to grow and we will be back.

Gustavo: And of course there was Dylan Roof in Charleston, going to a Black church.

tape: We want the entire community to pray for safety for our people, and that we would hope that this. Who has committed this heinous crime, which is a hate crime, be brought to justice,

Gustavo: Despite all these massacres, these conservative pundits and politicians, they keep repeating, they're saying, "Oh, we're against violence," but yeah, there's something there to this idea that demographics are changing. And by mentioning that, that keeps getting more and more Americans aware of the idea and making them think about it.

Erika: That's one of the things that's come up a lot. I think in the last couple of days //  since the shooting in Buffalo is talking about, you know, in particular Fox news, but it's not just Fox news. But some of the more conservative pundits who have continued to peddle this theory, and also the Republican politicians that have echoed it as well in maybe not as direct ways as Tucker Carlson, but have continued to kind of wink and nod and, and encourage this. But I would argue that Tucker is probably among the worst offenders //  given the fact that he's been talking about it for so long. And it's continued to defend this despite the fact, as you said, so many people live in shot with people driving hundreds of miles, several hours to get to places to shoot a specific demographic. It's just one of those things that at least in my opinion, I think we need to really push back on in society. But it's, it's really caused some damage, particularly as politics has become even more polarized in the last few years.

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Erika: So even last year, there was a national poll that was done by the Associated Press that found that roughly three in 10 American adults think that additional immigration will cause native assumingly, white Americans, to lose their economic, political and cultural influence. Those are huge numbers that are just being influenced by pundits.

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Jean: Yeah. I mean, when you have mainstream right-wing media personalities and politicians spewing this nonsense everywhere, I mean, it's just guaranteed that it's going to end up pouring into the dark cellards of the internet. Places like Four Chan, where the shooter was, was radicalized and where he was radicalized in part by false Black crime statistics that are peddled by Jared Taylor and Peter Brimelow. And those are the same white supremacists whose content was promoted by Trump's senior advisor, Stephen Miller, and which helped radicalize him when he was a young man. And they're the same false Black crime statistics that Larry Elder, who was the Republican front runner in the recall election // last year, that he has been pedaling. They have like a really deadly impact because people read them and they believe that Black people are more violent or that they're in some way inferior to white people.//

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Gustavo: And Jean, you made a direct connection in a column earlier this year about how the great replacement was pushed in California in the '90s. And you connected it all the way to the January 6th insurrection. How did this fear of too many minorities and not enough whites turn into an attempt to overturn an election? 

Jean: Well it was one of the main drivers of the election and polls show about 75% of people who // support the insurrection, who support the use of force to restore Donald Trump and who support the big lie.

tape: Dude, let, let let's tell trouble. Be very upset and be like, no, just say we love him. We love you bro. Now he'll be happy. What do you mean we're fighting for Trump. 

Jean: 75% of them have that delusion that Democrats are importing quote, unquote, third world immigrants to  quote unquote, replace them. There was a Chicago report that found that 21 million Americans believe that President Biden is an illegitimate president and that use of force to restore Trump to office is justified. And it's because of that theory, this idea that like, if you believe that Democratic elites are importing immigrants to replace you, then violence is sort of the logical conclusion. And the reason that we see so many people ascribing to this ideology is because of what Erika was talking about. You have these major right-wing media, personalities, and politicians who are peddling this as fact and mainstreaming it. And Fox news, I mean, Tucker Carlson, 400 episodes of his show, he has amplified the great replacement theory and normalized it and pedaled it as facts.

tape: 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, that's what's happening actually.

Jean: So I think that that is why you see so much support for something as violent and anti-Democratic as the January 6th insurrection.

Gustavo: Erika. We're talking about the mainstream media. We're talking about polls. They're supposedly a barometer of how America thinks, but online though, it's even worse. You have a new generation of people who aren't just believing all these theories, pedaling them, but they're now pushing each other to actively combat it and goading each other into creating racist mayhem.

Erika: One thing has become clear over the last few years is that we're all not living in the same reality. Some of us aren't living in reality at all.

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Erika: And I do think that online, particularly social media has created a whole 'nother world, which has been amped up by the Tucker Carlson's of the world. But, you know, there's people that are far more extreme on, taking even Twitter, but Four Chan and Eight Chan, which is where // police say the Buffalo shooter shared his manifesto and had lots of thoughts to share. But I mean, I think that online provides a whole 'nother forum and it's a way that people are kind of amping each other up. I mean, some of the reports about the Buffalo shooter have been, that he was communicating with others and this idea they're treating it like a video game. Like how many people can you shoot? Where should you go? How do you beat the authorities? I mean, we're at this point now where there's public opinion polls, and then there's the underbelly of where the public is. You have shooters like the one in El Paso, like the one in Buffalo, like the one in Poway, California, like the one in Pittsburgh, who are just shooting people indiscriminately based on some flawed notion of where this country is going, which has no real basis in reality.

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Gustavo: We'll have more after this break.

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Gustavo: Erika. I want to go back to Buffalo, back to Tops, the supermarket there. It was an oasis for a neighborhood that's been described as a food desert and the man who killed 10 innocent people targeted this spot on purpose to terrorize and to hurt a community in a place that they relied on. How are people feeling and what's being done now to try to address this racism and hate head-on.

Erika: I read about this neighborhood. I've never been to it in Buffalo, New York, but it sounds like so many neighborhoods in so many cities that I've been in. And I think immediately after the shooting, the mayor of Buffalo, who is Black talked about the pain that's being felt by this community and the anger.

tape: This is the worst nightmare that any community can face. And we are hurting and we are seething right now as a community.

Erika: And there's been calls to have the Biden administration to really do something far more expansive in talking about this and not treat them as one-off instances by white supremacists who maybe has mental health problems and too easy access to guns.


Erika: I mean, I think that we've seen the last few days, lots of thoughts and //prayers and lots of calls to condemn members of the Republican party and pundits. But I mean, it remains to be seen if anything politically actually is going to be done. But I do think that it's way past time to kind of really deal with this on a more massive, cohesive, comprehensive scale.

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Gustavo: Jean, do you think this latest shooting will result in any. I'm really concerned that it's just going to be treated like all of the other shootings.

Jean: I’m really concerned that it’s just going to be treated like all of the other shootings. Imean,// the El Paso shooting, it was // horrific. I mean, it was the biggest attack on Latinos in, in history and// nothing was done about it. And as a result, you saw what happened in Buffalo. Like these extremists just continue to get radicalized online and we aren't addressing the root problems, the root causes of that radicalization. Among them, you know, the fact that white-supremacist extremism has been and is being mainstreamed by the GOP. // And just in general, you know, toxic notions of masculinity that pervade our culture. The Buffalo shooter, // he used Discord this app, this messaging app to log all of his planning, leading up to the attack. He's like agonizing about his soy intake, potentially making him effeminate and just really expressing a lot of these toxic ideas of masculinity that I think are the reason that a vast majority of mass shootings are committed by men. And these are the things that we never talk about. We never address as a country. And I think that, unfortunately that means we're going to continue to see more of this.

Gustavo: And finally, Erika and Jean, we're all columnist here in California. We're writers of color in a state where we're now the majority. And if California made the great replacement, a mainstream thing in politics, what can California offer today as a counterweight?

Erika: I would argue that we brought this as a state into the mainstream, but I would argue we still haven't entirely dealt with it. I mean, late last year I was up in Northern California talking to some people in some counties up there who are in these rural counties that are concerned about people from the Bay Area and moving and quote replacing them. So this is not dialogue that's gone away. We haven't even done away with extremists in our own state, a lot of whom are now emboldened because of Trump that are taking over entire county boards of supervisors. And we don't even have elected officials saying anything. So, I mean, I think there's a lot more that we can do on our own home turf of addressing extremism and hopefully potentially serve as an example to the rest of the country about how to actually deal with this. But we have to act in a way as knowing this is a broad problem that has been around for a very long time, and it's not going to go away without any sort of like direct acknowledgement and attempts to really address it.

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Jean: And the other thing is just that I think we need to popularize this idea that nativism and white supremacist extremism, these are political losers ultimately. I mean, in the short term, yes, they will get you voters. They will get people hysterical and coming out to vote because they think they're being replaced. But in the long-term, like, this is not a sustainable political strategy. As we saw in California, like it just ends up inspiring and politically mobilizing the communities that you're endangering. And this whole idea that demographic change is an existential threat to white people or to Republicans it's just pure nonsense. And once Republicans understand that the real threat to them is this idea that nativism is a sustainable political strategy. Like I think that eventually that that's going to be what moves the Republican party away from this losing strategy.

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Gustavo: Erika, Jean, thank you so much for this conversation.

Erika: Thanks for having me on.

Jean: Thank you.

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And that's it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. 

Ashlea Brown was the jefa on this episode. Our show is produced by Shannon Linn, Denise Guerra , Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo, Ashlea Brown and Angel Carreras.

Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mike Heflin and Mark Nieto. 

Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. 

And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. Like what you're listening to? Then make sure to follow THE TIMES on whatever platform you use. I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.

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