On Saturday, May 14, 2022, ten people were murdered and three more wounded by an 18-year-old White man—kitted out in the all-too-familiar uniform of paramilitary tactical gear and semiautomatic military-style rifle—who violently targeted a busy Tops Friendly Markets supermarket in Buffalo, New York. Eleven of his 13 victims are Black. The shooter selected the location because it had the highest concentration of Black people convenient to his residence. Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in the country and the residential patterns that led to the Tops market being selected are themselves the result of decades of systemic White supremacy. The shooter, who live streamed his massacre before surrendering to police—left behind a 180-page screed closely modeled on that of the 2019 Christchurch shooter in which he embraces the central tenets of contemporary White nationalism.
We grieve for the victims and share our most steadfast solidarity with the survivors, family, friends, and other members of the community who are left to overcome this catastrophe.
PRA offers the following context for journalists, policymakers, and justice-minded people seeking to understand this horrific act and prevent recurrences. First, this mass shooting–far too common in our country–cannot be understood as just a crime or the act of a psychologically disturbed individual. It was a political act, fueled by White nationalist ideology that has important links to much broader movements of authoritarianism, racial nationalism, and misogyny. Second, the murderous anti-Blackness of the attacks used pseudo-scientific “race realism” justification that has developed within the margins of academia for decades. Third, the shooter’s focus on White birth rates and the use of “Great Replacement” disinformation in his statement has to be seen in the context of the recent proliferation of these ideas in the mainstream. It also points to a link between racial and ethnic nationalism and assaults on bodily autonomy seen in Christian Right anti-abortion rhetoric that is poised to be realized when the SCOTUS passes down its Jackson decision this summer. Finally, a strand of explicit and violent antisemitism permeates the statement, accusing Jews of assaults on White culture and the White race itself that amount to genocide–a kind of conspiracism that is replicated in QAnon and in only slightly coded ways in the wider MAGA movement.
The attack should be understood as an act of political violence, motivated by White nationalism and misogyny, and intended to provide a model for others to follow: a model that takes Black people in particular, and people of color more generally, as enemies that threaten White existence, and that positions Jews as the secret orchestrators of threats to White people. The shooter’s “manifesto” is not about personal “hatred” so much as a political ideology that defines Blacks—and Jews—as a racial enemy. He justifies this with a profound anti-Blackness that is expressed at length, incorporating memes and infographics from an array of White nationalist sources to “prove” the danger Blacks pose to White people as a group (and as a supposed nation), reproducing the usual “race realism” (i.e. “scientific racism”) talking points about White superiority, genes and I.Q., and race and crime. The screed gives explicit voice to ideas that linger in a much wider swath of the population, if generally in more coded forms.
The Tops supermarket attack was quickly and broadly condemned as a “straight-up racially motivated hate crime,” an act of “extremist violence,” and—in the words of New York’s governor—“an act of terrorism by a white supremacist.” The attack almost certainly meets the statutory definition of a hate crime, was most extreme in its violence, and surely constitutes an act of racial terrorism. These labels, meant to declare that violence against stigmatized groups constitutes a special threat to humanity and to the existence of a plural society, offer the (admittedly cold) comfort that the individual and the act exist fundamentally apart from our larger society. As much as we should want that to be the case, the harder but more important truth is that such mass shootings as those committed at Tops supermarket, the Atlanta spas, Mother Emanuel, Tree of Life, El Paso, Pulse nightclub, and so many others reflect and function to enforce widespread, deeply rooted supremacist beliefs. We should understand these not as acts of individual hatred or pathological psychopathy, but as political violence in furtherance of supremacist cultural and political agendas. Characterizing the acts and the actors as outliers who can be brought to justice with our policing, courts, and national security apparatus denies the pervasiveness of bigoted and supremacist beliefs and relies upon systemically inequitable institutions to keep societally sanctioned supremacy and violence from getting too far out of hand. At this moment, an authoritarian coalition—committed to replacing our shaky system of majority rule and minority rights with one of patriarchal White minority rule under an oligarchic one-party state—continues to seize power. Surely, it is past time to abandon the fiction of isolated acts of extremism.
Demographic Dystopia Conspiracy
Besides the violent anti-Blackness expressed in the killer’s choice of victims and the scientific racism he uses to justify his actions, a theme that runs through his screed is the claim that White people are being intentionally “replaced” by non-White immigrants. He expounds on this conspiracy theory by bemoaning the low birth rates in the White population. These are the matching concepts of “Great Replacement” and “Demographic Winter” that we at PRA refer to as the Far Right’s Demographic Dystopia. “Replacement” has its origins in White nationalism and is focused on immigration; “Demographic Winter” is most closely associated with the Christian Right, focusing on fertility and exerting control over reproductive lives. Both concepts circulate in mainstream circles, with the “replacement” theory used by Fox News host Tucker Carlson and former Trump administration official Stephen Miller. Demographic Winter, with its accusations against feminism, contraception, and reproductive freedom is a staple of the Christian Right (both in the United States and across Europe) and the anti-abortion movement.
It should be emphasized that Great Replacement claims have their origins in full-blown White nationalist and even neo-nazi circles. The fraudulent claims of “replacement” and the associated idea of “White genocide” take for granted permanent, fixed “races” that are considered to be the primary location of political identity and loyalty. Even the idea that the “White population” is in demographic decline depends on political assumptions about race and fixation with who is and isn’t White. The shooter exhibits this obsession with legal-bureaucratic precision, exempting people who are 87.5% or more of “another race” than Black from his anti-Black diatribe. Yet history, sociology, biology, and political science have long understood that our racial categories are not about genetic percentages, but about controlling populations and allocating the resources and benefits of citizenship. That is, they are about politics and power.
So-called Great Replacement claims have spread in the United States and have become part of mainstream discourse. A recent large national poll (May 2022) indicates that nearly half of Republicans and nearly 1 in 3 Americans believe in this conspiracy. The Buffalo shooter’s violent rampage sets him apart, but his embrace of the Great Replacement conspiracy places him squarely within the common sense of the MAGA movement–which tends to see actions such as deportation and criminalization of others as the province of a state that they aim to capture and hold. A coalition of anti-immigrant groups and Trump administration officials made this clear in a recent letter to GOP congressional leadership: “Congress should be emboldened with the mandate to immediately legislate unflinchingly, ensuring that neither this nor any future administration is again able to weaponize loopholes in the immigration system—and defiantly refuse to follow plain law—to purposefully drive mass illegal immigration to the United States.” In short, versions of the racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory animated the White nationalist shooter in Buffalo, Tree of Life and Poway synagogue shooters, the mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6th of 2021, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, and far Right elected officials such as Rep. Paul Gosar, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and others.
Misogyny, Natalism, Antisemitism
The racist claims of the Buffalo attacker are rooted in beliefs about a gendered social order and authoritarianism. The very first point in the shooter’s manifesto is a dire warning about birth rates. The “one thing” he wants us to take away is that “White birth rates must change.” This is a telling place to start a White nationalist manifesto. It points to the centrality of White natalism, and therefore the necessity of controlling bodily autonomy and reproductive choices in order to advance White nationalist politics in particular and authoritarian politics in general.
Gendered social control is also a key point of overlap between White nationalism and Christian nationalism. There is, however, a rank-order difference in threat assessment between the two movements. Among White nationalists, the top priority tends to be stopping the “replacement” of White citizens by Black and Brown immigrants. The Buffalo massacre takes this priority to its logical, horrific extreme, treating Black people—including Black children—as racial enemies to be eliminated through any means necessary, up to and including murder, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. In Christian nationalist politics, racial preferences are often expressed in gendered terms, and the points of violent political intervention have tended to be abortion clinics and the bodies of LGBTQ people. Transgender people have come under increased attack both in state legislatures—where record numbers of anti-trans bills have been introduced in the last two years—and on the streets, where anti-trans violence is rampant.
The Buffalo shooter takes a more openly neonazi position, paraphrasing a critique by Christchurch attacker of NGOs as complicit in White genocide, allegedly run by “cultural marxists” taking advantage of “naive Christian Europeans.” What he means by “cultural marxists” is made clear in twenty-plus pages densely packed with antisemitic memes, including more explicit versions of the “grooming” rhetoric now proliferating across the MAGA landscape. In this through-the-looking-glass world—so the memes say—Jews are luring White children into trans lives so they “kill themselves” or “become genetic dead ends.” This is a reprisal of the blood libel—the violence-inspiring lie that Jews murder Christian children for their blood—and what this 18-year-old White nationalist does in his statement is make clear the logic behind the “grooming” rhetoric of the MAGA-Right. Much like the Christian nationalists at the core of the MAGA movement, the shooter ultimately sees “the traditional family unit” as the key to a White future, requiring “strong traditions, gender norms, societal norms.” That is, the imposition of gender policing as a necessary component of a fascist order that the perpetrator sees as “one of the only political ideologies that will unite Whites against the replacers.”
The shooter’s worldview, as expressed in his statement, is unmistakably U.S.-style White nationalism, combining anti-Black scientific racism, fixation on demographic change, and a conviction that behind all the problems of the White world are the Jews. This emphasis on conspiracist antisemitism puts the Buffalo shooter in the same ideological lane as the Tree of Life and Poway synagogue shooters. There is nothing subtle about the focus. “The real war I’m advocating for is the gentiles vs the Jews,” writes the shooter. They are, for him, “the biggest problem the Western world has ever had.” He states, “they must be called out and killed.” This focus reflects a core belief of White nationalism: The very anti-Blackness that the shooter uses to justify his decision to “kill as many blacks as possible” as the first of his “goals,” makes it necessary to pose behind the scenes manipulators calling the shots and planning the strategy. Jews are, in this twisted version of unreality, identified as using Black and Brown people to replace Whites, using challenges to gender essentialism as an effort to emasculate and–by implication–draw White people away from authoritarian and militarized forms of culture that imprison U.S. society in never-ending cycles of violence and exploitation.
MAGA Call and Response
The echoes of the MAGA movement in the shooter’s statement are not incidental: explicit White nationalism is attached to the more mainstream expressions of racism and misogyny as collaborator and critic. The anti-trans use of “groomer” rhetoric, QAnon disinformation about child trafficking, the long march to capture the federal courts and thereby impose restrictions on reproductive health care, and attacks on critical race theory all have their reflection in the Buffalo shooter’s statement. These echoes and reflections between MAGA and the explicit White nationalism, binary gender essentialism, and racial nationalist conspiracism of the shooter have to be understood—and placed in the context of entrenched systems of privilege, oppression, and exclusion in order to effectively plot a strategy to a more just, inclusive, and actually democratic society.
Rest in Power
Where to from here? We should hold space to remember the lives and loved ones of Ruth Whitfield, Pearl Young, Katherine Massey, Heyward Patterson, Celestine Chaney, Geraldine Talley, Aaron Salter, Andre Mackneil, Margus D. Morrison, Roberta A. Drury. We must resist calls for increased surveillance, militarized policing, and incarceration as has already been proposed by some Democrats. These only serve to move our society in the direction of autocracy—and are almost certain to be deployed primarily against those fighting for justice or against communities that are already overpoliced. In the immediacy of the moment, we should lend our support to local efforts to serve the Black community in Buffalo, such as those by Black-led mutual aid groups Every Bottom Covered Diaper Bank, Feed Buffalo, and Black Love Resists in the Rust—or similar groups in our own communities where state violence and the long-term impacts of White supremacy are daily realities. In the longer term, we need to build solidarity across and between racial, gender, and economic justice organizations and convince a significant proportion of the people that they need to work together, to oppose the violent Far Right, the institution-capturing MAGA Right, and systemic forms of oppression as an interconnected ecosystem—no part of which can be ignored in our strategies, and none of which can be successfully overcome with authoritarian means if our goal is justice.