BY CALEB KIEFFER
On May 14, 2022, a gunman carried out a horrific, racist attack on the Black community, killing 10 people and wounding three others at a Tops Friendly Markets grocery store in east Buffalo, New York. The gunman left behind an online screed suggesting the attack was motivated by a racist conspiracy theory that has previously inspired other white supremacist acts of terror.
On the anniversary of the atrocity in Buffalo, we remember and mourn those lost in the attack and those whose lives have forever been altered. To honor them, we call for urgency and vigilance in preventing and countering extremist violence and the white supremacy behind it. While testifying before the House Oversight Committee in June 2022, Zeneta Everhart, whose son Zaire was wounded in the shooting, spoke candidly about the nation’s problems stemming from white supremacy and gun violence.
“Domestic terrorism exists in this country for three reasons,” Everhart said. “America is inherently violent. This is who we are as a nation. The very existence of this country was founded on violence, hate and racism.” A lengthy digital footprint said to be associated with the shooter shows false conspiracy theories about a “great replacement” spurred him to drive more than 200 miles to a predominantly Black neighborhood to carry out the massacre.
The “great replacement” theory is a central tenet of white nationalism. Steeped in racist and antisemitic narratives, it falsely asserts there is a concerted and covert effort to replace white populations in white-majority countries with immigrants of color. The conspiracy theory has inspired many other attacks carried out by white extremists against people of color, immigrants, Jewish people and Muslims. Once a fringe idea propagated by hate groups and other extremists – frequently in online message boards – the “great replacement” theory and ideas akin to it have been normalized and dragged into the mainstream, in part, with the help of conservative political figures, media personalities, lawmakers and lobbying groups.
Tucker Carlson, the now-former Fox News commentator, was one of the biggest media purveyors of “great replacement” ideas. He used his prime-time spot to stoke fear about immigration at the southern border and falling birthrates as existential threats to white people. While Carlson was careful to avoid using the more overt terms favored by avowed white nationalists, these extremists have praised him for mainstreaming their ideas.
These ideas have had a far-reaching effect. In a survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Tulchin Research, nearly seven in 10 Republicans agreed to at least some extent with the notion that demographic changes in the U.S. are deliberately driven by liberal and progressive politicians attempting to gain political power by “replacing more conservative white voters.”
A year after the Buffalo massacre, this type of rhetoric is still prevalent. This year, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has held multiple committee hearings on immigration featuring extremist voices and giving a platform to xenophobic rhetoric about a migrant “invasion” happening at the southern border.
On March 6, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, the ranking member of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, sent a letter signed by all committee Democrats to Rep. James Comer, the committee chairman, asking him and his Republican colleagues to denounce the white nationalist “great replacement” conspiracy theory. The letter said that during one hearing on Feb. 7, Republicans “invoked dangerous and conspiratorial rhetoric echoing the racist and nativist tropes peddled by white supremacists and right-wing extremists.” This included warnings about “invasion” and accusing the Biden administration of implementing a plan “to deliberately open our border” for purposes of “changing our culture.” Comer and all the other Republicans refused to sign, calling it an attempt to “distract” from issues about the border.
This rhetoric has had deadly consequences. Aside from the Buffalo massacre, “great replacement,” antisemitic and invasion-style rhetoric has inspired numerous domestic terror attacks and other acts of violence – in places like Christchurch, New Zealand; El Paso, Texas; and Poway, California. The Buffalo anniversary this year comes during the trial of a man accused of killing 11 Jewish worshippers in a 2018 antisemitic mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The Black community of Buffalo was already dealing with the daily impacts of racism, false conspiracy theories and violence before the shooting.
“This attack compounded the preexisting generational and ancestral trauma that plagued this targeted Buffalo neighborhood and its Black residents,” wrote Thomas Beauford, president of the Buffalo chapter of the National Urban League, in the organization’s 2023 State of Black America report.
‘HELP US TO CREATE THE CHANGE’
Too often, following white supremacist acts of terror, politicians and others who refuse to take real action offer their “thoughts and prayers.”
But thoughts and prayers for the victims of extremist violence are not enough, says Zeneta Everhart. She told lawmakers, “We need you to stand with us in the days, weeks, months and years to come, and be ready to go to work and help us to create the change that this country so desperately needs.”
In fact, there are a number of policy actions that can be taken to mitigate the impact of far-right extremism. They include:
- Improving the collection of hate crime data. The most recent FBI hate crime report documented the highest number of hate crimes ever reported, including the highest number of race-based crimes – mostly directed against Black people. After 30 years of incomplete data and underreporting from the FBI, Congress should enact legislation to require credible hate crime reporting by local and state law enforcement as a condition of receiving federal funds.
- Expanding upstream prevention initiatives to build community resilience. The FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice have all confirmed that the primary domestic terrorism threat comes from racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists who advocate for the superiority of the white race. To bolster community well-being and ensure that everyone is prepared to inoculate young people against radicalization, federal and state governments should provide funding for long-term prevention and education initiatives. The SPLC has partnered with American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab to produce resources for parents and caregivers to assist them in helping to steer young people away from extremist propaganda. And the White House must follow through on the wide array of government initiatives and public-private partnerships against hate and extremism announced last September at the United We Stand Summit.
- Defending and promoting inclusive, truthful education. As many states push new laws to restrict inclusive education and restrict teaching about difficult history in the U.S., more needs to be done to ensure young people are presented the unvarnished facts about this country’s history – both good and bad – to shape a better future. In her testimony, Everhart stated, “We cannot continue to whitewash education, creating generations of children to believe that one race of people are better than the other. Our differences should make us curious, not angry. … That awful day that will now be a part of the history books … let us not forget to add that horrific day to the curriculum that we teach our children.”
- Promoting online safety and holding tech and social media companies accountable. Tech companies must be held accountable for their role in spreading extremist disinformation and indoctrinating young people into racist and other hateful ideologies. These companies should create and enforce policies and terms of service to ensure that social media networks, payment service providers and other internet-based services do not provide platforms where hateful activities and extremism can thrive.
Finally, elected officials, civic leaders, law enforcement and business leaders must repudiate dangerous and false ideas like the “great replacement” theory. A year after the Tops supermarket shooting, far too many political figures and pundits continue to perpetuate this dangerous rhetoric.
As we remember those who were killed and those whose lives were permanently changed because of the hate-based violence in Buffalo, we must come together to challenge white supremacy in all its forms and strive for a world free of it.
Caleb Kieffer is a senior research analyst for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.