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Do many Americans believe in the ‘great replacement’ theory?

The Buffalo shooting showed that at least some people are ready to commit violence for this conspiracy theory

In the latest shooting targeting minority groups, a White man allegedly opened fire recently in a Buffalo grocery store in a predominantly Black community. Before he was accused of killing 10 people and injuring three, the suspect apparently wrote a screed, revealing that he was radicalized by white-supremacist media and inspired to commit violence by the “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

Although we do not know how widespread belief in the great replacement theory is, shooters have used it to rationalize violence before. Because of this link to violence and white supremacy, these ideas are often considered to be extreme, believed only on society’s fringe. But when we looked closely, we found evidence that a non-trivial segment of the Western population embraces some of the more benign aspects of these beliefs.

How we did our research

To estimate how widespread these beliefs are among the American public, we examined two national surveys.

First, with support from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), we fielded a survey using a probability-based online panel through the Ipsos KnowledgePanel service to a random national sample of 1,027 adults in April 2022. These panels recruit respondents using address-based sampling and then weigh the results to the federal government’s Current Population Survey estimates.

Then, we used the 2021 American Values Survey from PRRI. The 2021 AVS also used Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel to gather a probability-based online sample of 2,508 American adults in September, weighted to match the CPS. Here is what we found.

A substantial portion of White Americans fear diversity

In our survey, we find that more than a trivial number of Americans feel threatened by the idea of a diversifying America. Some researchers find that learning about the growth of the non-White population in the United States leads some to more conservative policy positions and party identification. Others in the population simply understand American identity in a limited way.

White people in our survey were particularly likely to fear a diversifying nation. Among everyone surveyed, 31 percent agree “strongly” or “somewhat” with the statement, “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” Among White people, 37.3 percent somewhat or strongly agree. In the survey, 31.2 percent of all respondents agree strongly or somewhat with the statement, “Efforts to increase diversity always come at the expense of whites.” Among White people, 38.9 percent agree.

In our sample, 14 percent of all respondents somewhat or strongly agree that “the idea of an America where most people are not white bothers me.” Among White people, 16.8 percent do.

Over one-third of respondents in our sample (34.6 percent) somewhat or strongly agree that “the idea of an America that is not a Christian nation bothers me.” Among White people, that was noticeably higher, 40.3 percent.

Although these figures show that the majority of Americans reject narrow conceptions of the national fabric, a solid minority rejects pluralism and fears what it means for the United States.

Conspiracy theories are spreading wildly. Why now?

The two parties promote different perspectives on demographic change and replacement

Our results suggest that partisanship influences those different views of diversity. In the figure below, we show the responses to two of the questions above for Democrats (in blue) and Republicans (in red). As you can see, across the board, a majority of Democrats strongly disagree with components of the great replacement theory.

Republicans, however, are much more divided. A majority agree that efforts for diversity come at the expense of White people and that immigrants are replacing American culture. Additional analysis suggests that an increasingly non-Christian, non-White nation bothers them.

Republicans' and Democrats' attitudes toward demographic change.
Republicans’ and Democrats’ attitudes toward demographic change.

Those who fear demographic change are also more likely to say violence is necessary

But are fears about demographic change linked to support for violence? For that, we looked at the PRRI’s 2021 AVS survey, which found that 18 percent of respondents agree that, “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Its survey also included a question posed to half of the sample about how demographic change would affect the country. Noting that the White share of the U.S. population is decreasing, the survey asked whether respondents believe that change would be “mostly negative,” “mostly positive” or that it “doesn’t matter either way.” Fully 60 percent said the change does not matter either way.

However, the 19 percent of the sample who believe demographic change is mostly negative were much more likely to agree that patriots may need to resort to violence — about one-third of that 19 percent agree. Surveys always have a margin or error, but these estimates suggest that those who both reject a diversifying America and think violence is called for make up around 6 percent of the U.S. adult population (with margin of error, between 3.5 and 8.5 percent), or roughly between 10 and 20 million people.

How ‘great replacement’ theory led to the Buffalo mass shooting

Why does this matter?

Our evidence suggests that roughly 6 percent of U.S. adults — which is not a trivial portion — lament diversity and endorse violence. More broadly, nearly a third of White U.S. adults are apprehensive about demographic replacement. The Buffalo shooting shows how the threat many perceive from pluralism can turn into real-world violence, with a tragic loss of lives, leaving people of color feeling vulnerable to attack daily.

But it also draws attention to a broader pattern of beliefs held by some Americans today. People who fear replacement are likely to reject a diverse national fabric. Until this sense of fear and White grievance are addressed, we are likely to see more violence targeted at minorities.

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Tarah Williams (@tarahwilliams01) is an assistant professor of political science at Allegheny College and a public fellow at the Public Religion Research Institute.

Nazita Lajevardi (@NazitaLajevardi) is an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University and a public fellow at the Public Religion Research Institute.

Evan Stewart (@EvanStewart23) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a public fellow at the Public Religion Research Institute.

Roy Whitaker (dwhitaker@sdsu.edu) is an associate professor of Black religions and American religious diversity at San Diego State University and a public fellow at the Public Religion Research Institute.