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A history professor weighs in on the Buffalo attack and white supremacy

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go back to the story that's dominated our coverage today, the shooting at the supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 10 people and injured three more yesterday. Eleven of the 13 people who were shot were Black. And authorities say an 18-year-old white male, Payton S. Gendron, is from Conklin, N.Y., more than a three-hour drive from Buffalo. And they also say that Gendron apparently published a 180-page document online where he talks about how he was radicalized online and where he repeats racist conspiracy theories known as the great replacement.

Authorities are working to verify the document's authenticity, but given all that, we wanted to know more about this kind of thinking and the movements springing up around it, so we've called Kathleen Belew. She is assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." And Kathleen Belew is with us now to tell us more. Professor Belew, thanks so much for talking with us today.

KATHLEEN BELEW: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Just to start us off, can you just give us some background about this great replacement theory? How did this all start, and how does it factor into these white supremacist movements that we see today?

BELEW: The great replacement theory is the newest sort of name for a very old set of ideas. And the ideas at bottom are that there is an evil group of elites who are seeking to eradicate the white race through a number of social programs, ranging from immigration to intermarriage to abortion to gay rights to even contact with Black Americans. And in this case, what we see is that the important part of this theory is less the impacted communities, which we've seen quite varied across at least the U.S. context, if not further. But more important is the center of what is sort of seeking to be protected.

Activists who follow this doctrine believe that the white race is under attack and that all of these social policies that we might think of as soft demographic change are actually a state of apocalyptic racial annihilation. So in this case, we see that the document that's circulating as this person's sort of manifesto of ideology is largely cut and pasted from the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, that targeted Islamic worshippers and recent immigrants at two mosques there. And what we see is that this doctrine is quite flexible, and it's really a new name for an old set of racial hatreds.

MARTIN: Can you just tell us a little bit about who is attracted to this movement or this way of thinking? I mean, in this country, which, unfortunately, has seen, you know, many, many mass shootings in recent years and certainly this year alone, there does seem to be a certain profile. That seems to be young men, young white men. They seem to be - I don't know. They just seem to have a certain template. And I just wondered, like, why is it that they're attracted to this? What is it about this particular group, or is this a particular group that seems to be attracted to this?

BELEW: Yes. So you're right to place the Buffalo shooting in a sort of set of similar events that we often think of as lone wolf attacks. These include shootings of Latinx immigrants and Mexican American community members in El Paso, Texas, a few years ago, the shooting of Black Bible study worshippers in Charleston, the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the Poway synagogue in California. These acts go on and on and on at this point. Some are larger. Some are smaller. And most of them we don't hear about because, as you say, there are so many mass shootings in our country.

But in that case, we're talking about events that seem to impact different populations but are all carried out by shooters who share an ideology. Only in the last few years have we began taking this seriously as a major threat to American democracy, much less as a threat of imminent violence against these targeted communities, even though it remains so. So one of the challenging things to consider is how we treat the parts of this movement that are doing more aboveboard or more mainstream, acceptable forms of public activism like the January 6 attack, which was not meant as mass violence but was meant as a radicalization exercise by a number of people in this movement who were in the crowd that day, and connecting that with the acts that are intended as mass violence and are intended as domestic terrorism.

MARTIN: So what would a response look like? As you point out, this has a deep stem. It seems to resurface in different forms and as part of different movements, you know, every couple of years. I think many people may remember the - Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, subscribed to this, you know, theory. But - and then it seems to sort of resurface with a new set of constituencies. What does an appropriate response look like? What are thinkers like yourself and in your field - what are you talking about?

I mean, obviously, one issue that comes to the fore is the accessibility of weapons of war. But I see that a number of people who are writing in your - in this field say that the debate over gun violence is so stalemated that it's best to look in other directions. What do you say? What do you think are appropriate responses that policymakers should be considering?

BELEW: I think that this is such a deep and broad problem that we need every solution on the table. And that ranges from telling a real story about what happened on January 6 to real accountability for impacted communities when there is an act of mass violence to broad, far-reaching changes in all of our sort of strata of social response. We don't have the right laws on the books. We also don't have the right funding for agencies that do the work of stopping acts like this. We don't have - you know, there have been major strides in how we tell stories about what this is and what it means so that we don't immediately think of, quote, unquote, "lone wolf actors" when this is not a lone wolf problem. But we need more, and we need as many things as we can think of.

I think that we need to be talking about our history in a more, you know, serious and sustained way. I think we need civics education, and I think we need local community response. And honestly, it's only in the last two years maybe that we've started to see some institutional change that really directs resources at this problem. And even when we do direct resources at this problem, oftentimes, the sort of headline of the response has been about policing. And when we expand those resources, they often come back around and doubly impact the communities that are being targeted by these activists in the first place. So I think we have a really difficult, complicated knot of a problem, and it's going to take all of us to solve it together.

MARTIN: That's Kathleen Belew. She's assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, and she's the author of "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." Professor Belew, thank you so much for joining us once again.

BELEW: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRIS HELLER'S "AMBIENT GOLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.