America had its latest experience this past Friday with racial hatred. The 18-year-old alleged gunman drove more than 200 miles to a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y. Dressed in military tactical gear and body armor that included a helmet with a video camera implanted, the assailant opened fire in the parking lot, killing three before running into the store and killing another 10, according to official accounts. Of the 13 victims, 11 were Black. It’s an American horror story.
It turns out that the suspected shooter had become deeply immersed in white supremacist propaganda. In particular, the alleged mass killer had come to embrace what white nationalists are calling “the great replacement theory,” or GRT.
Tracing back to a conspiracy promulgated by French novelist Renaud Camus, GRT is the notion that members of white ethnic groups of developed countries are being “replaced” by people of color. This replacement is being facilitated by “replacist elites” who are complicit in a larger project to facilitate demographic change, primarily through immigration and controlling the birthrate. It paints an empirically false, sensationalized picture of white citizens being under threat of social and political domination.
GRT’s lack of credibility, however, does not prevent the idea from being an obstacle for our teachers, school administrators, and our education policymakers. While the GRT fears are unfounded, the concerted attack on Black Americans, and especially Black children in schools, is very real.
According to the FBI’s 2020 crime-statistics report, we experienced the largest amount of hate crimes in over a decade. The plurality of crimes were race-related, and Black Americans were the group most likely to be targeted. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found the same trend in public schools in 2018; hate speech and hate crimes tended to be racially motivated and targeted toward Black students and other students of color. Over 10,000 of those hate crimes involved an attack with a weapon—more than double the number from the previous year. These are the costs of the spread of spurious ideas like GRT.
The effects of these hateful narratives are not limited to physical violence. While white nationalist ideologies continue to fuel the motivations for racial hate crimes, schooling strategies that aim to undermine the spread of racial hatred have been under attack at the policy level. As of now, at least 17 states have signed bills or resolutions that restrict teachers’ ability to teach about race or discuss racial issues. This means that teachers can be terminated or even sued should their lesson plan’s treatment of race make a parent feel uncomfortable.
And it’s not just teachers who are vulnerable. In Georgia, for instance, the ban is at the school level, which makes school administrators vulnerable.
There are more policy changes on the way. At least another 11 states have bills in their chambers that are at various stages of the legislative process. By 2023, the majority of states could very well have some sort of ban in place that essentially puts teachers’ careers in jeopardy should they discuss race with their students.
These policies have real consequences. Kids have access to all kinds of dangerous ideas—like the great replacement theory—that promote white supremacy and racial violence. There is evidence that the Buffalo shooter suspect wrote an entire manifesto declaring himself a fascist and white supremacist who has been radicalized by information on the internet. He acted upon that which he studied.
There is good news. There is an entire line of empirical research suggesting that anti-racist teaching reduces student prejudices. We have the tools to stop this. But how can we prevent the next Buffalo-like tragedy if teachers face threats when teaching about race?
Dangerous conspiratorial ideas like the great replacement theory are likely going to continue to spread. White nationalists and white supremacists will continue to target the American education system with their particular disdain. Both blue and red states have been investing more in education, putting more and more resources toward supporting students with disadvantages and working to shrink gaps in academic performance and opportunity. Some will see this progress as a threat.
We cannot let them win.
A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2022 edition of Education Week as The Grave Education Consequences Of the ‘Great Replacement’ Lie