Category Archives: Anti-racist activism

Why “The Great Replacement Theory” is not a Theory, and why that Matters

The notion of a “theory” comes from science. As such, the term conveys all the legitimacy upon which the scientific method relies. It should not be tossed around casually like a frisbee in the park.

The so-called “Great Replacement Theory” we are now reading about in mainstream publications is not a theory. Therefore, it should not be called a theory. And it should not be graced with capital letters. Both these practices suggest unearned legitimacy. And, unearned legitimacy carries great risk.

We now know that repeatedly making false claims will train people to slowly accept those false claims. Recent research by a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists warns us that we humans tend to increase our belief in any claims—true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, likely or unlikely—the more often we hear or read about them. So, as we repeatedly encounter something being called a “theory,” we become more easily inclined to agree that it IS a theory. Once that happens, it moves into the realm of science. As such, we begin to attribute it truth status.

What does it mean that a “theory” is grounded in the scientific method? Here’s one statement from Scientific American:

scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing.

The American Museum of Natural History expands on this basic principle:

A theory not only explains known facts; it also allows scientists to make predictions of what they should observe if a theory is true. Scientific theories are testable. New evidence should be compatible with a theory. If it isn’t, the theory is refined or rejected. The longer the central elements of a theory hold—the more observations it predicts, the more tests it passes, the more facts it explains—the stronger the theory.

What is now being called the “great replacement theory” has nothing of the attributes of a theory. It has not been “substantiated through repeated experiments.” It has not been “substantiated through testing.” It does not “explain known facts.” It is not “compatible with new evidence.”

Jews are not “replacing” Christians. (As one Jewish studies scholar notes, “America’s Jewish birthrate has fallen, and Jews are barely replacing themselves, let alone the white population as a whole“). Nor are people of color “replacing” white people. True, the demographic profile of the U.S. is changing. But that is nothing new. In fact, it has always been the case. Since the founding of the Republic, new groups of refugees (starting with the Pilgrims), followed by newer groups of immigrants, have continually brought new languages, new musics, new cultural practices, new cuisines, and new religious traditions to these shores. Given this history that undergirds all American history, it should not surprise us that, as one recent study notes, most Americans do not care about the “changing” demographic profile of the American population. “Change” is the one constant of U.S. demographic history.

But some white Christians are afraid of such scenarios. Their fears are stoked by right-wing talk-show hosts promoting outlandish fantasies of racist and anti-Semitic “what-if” schemes. As they have been at other times in the past, these schemes are now being interbraided, with the fate of Western history’s two great “othered” groups—Jews and Blacks—being once again bound by linked stereotypes.

With fear a powerful motivator, these invented “replacement” plots slip easily into the vaunted category of “fact,” once they are covered with the veneer of science . . . simply by being called a “theory.”

Or, should I write, “Theory”?

Adding a capital letter to a word claiming to be something it is not makes matters worse. As one professional author/editor explains it, some people erroneously think that “sticking a capital letter at the front of a word would make it seem more grand, more important, more worthy of respect.” But, as another professional editor notes, this practice is nothing more than “rogue capitalization.” 

YOUR Words Matter

All of which is to urge:

Journalists and politicians: please stop mindlessly repeating the offensive, misleading, and dangerous phrase, “Great Replacement Theory”!

When referring to this notion—which has inspired all too many recent massacres, from El Paso to Buffalo—don’t be afraid to use more words, if more words are required for accuracy. Call it out for what it is. How about . . .

the dangerous claim known as “great replacement theory” that is rooted in racist and anti-Semitic paranoia.

Does “Reasonable” = Racist?

What can anthropology contribute to the critical conversation about race in America, following the welcome jury decision in the Derek Chauvin trial?

After they amassed and presented a week’s worth of technical details–medical, anatomical, temporal, legal–in the end, the prosecuting attorneys’ case against Derek Chauvin rested on a simple claim: A “reasonable” police officer would have removed his knee from George Floyd’s neck well before the excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took to kill him.


Miraculously, a jury of 12 peers unanimously agreed with that argument.

Every Black American (and probably every U.S. historian) knows how unlikely that verdict was. Indeed, on average, only one or two killings of a civilian out of a hundred by a police officer even goes to trial in the U.S. Why? Because, at base, the general assumption goes that a “reasonable” police officer would have acted the same way, given the challenging circumstances, so there’s no need to put him (or her) on trial.

And, until now, that argument–both its racist assumptions, and its racist implications–won out.

But what does it mean to invoke the “reasonable man [or woman]” as a model for a jury’s decision?

Back in 1955, the eminent social anthropologist, Max Gluckman, pointed out that the notion of the “reasonable man”–which lies beneath all Anglo-Saxon as well as many other systems of jurisprudence–is, at base, founded on cultural values.

He didn’t put it in quite that way. In analyzing the legal system of the Barotse or Lozi people of Zambia, he wrote:

“as Barotse judges define the reasonable man, they bring into their definitions many facets of Barotse life which are not ostensibly part of the law. These facets include a variety of social and personal prejudices. I believe the same process can be detected in the decisions of our own judges and juries.”

From: Max Gluckman, “The Reasonable Man in Barotse Law,” in Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa (New York: Free Press, 1963)

Those “prejudices”–which we might as well consider equivalent to “values”–dictate what members of particular societies consider what is, and is not, “reasonable.” Like most cultural values, these cultural models are neither universal nor unchanging.

Before the Derek Chauvin verdict, police departments across the U.S. judged it “reasonable” for 98-99 police officers out of 100 (likely, a white officer) to kill a civilian ( likely, a Black civilian), because of the particular context. Even in the rare cases that police officers killing civilians are formally charged, it is unlikely that the trial will result in a conviction–and, especially, a conviction of murder.

Last week, a jury in Minneapolis gave America a gift. Suddenly, the racist justification for (white) police officers easily killing (Black) civilians is no longer a basis for a “reasonable” decision.

As Black commentators have been pointing out since the moments after the verdict was handed down in court, it will take far more than one trial to change cultural values. For, in the end, cultural values are at stake–and such values do not change quickly or easily.

Yet, thanks to the past year of BLM events remaining front and center around the country (even the globe), racism is one cultural value that no longer holds primacy in the white American imagination. Now that the eyes of the nation were trained on the Minneapolis courtroom, there is no going back to assuming that a white officer killing a Black civilian is, automatically, “reasonable.”

We must, of course, keep pushing for accountability in all police killings. Even more importantly, we must keep pressing for structural change not only to put murderous police officers on trial, but to retrain all police officers in de-escalation tactics. Re-labeling them as “peace officers” or “safety officers”–emphasizing their potential for nurturing rather than violence–might be a good, discursive start. Incorporating mental health professionals and social workers into their departments–as the city of Santa Fe did last week with their new “Alternative Response Unit”–would be a great, more tactical start.

Meanwhile, I remain proud of my discipline. The late Max Gluckman fundamentally got it right when he argued that, ultimately, legal systems rest on cultural values.

But, community standards of “reasonableness” hold sway–until they don’t. If he’d been around to hear last week’s verdict, I’d like to imagine Gluckman breathing his own sigh of anthropological relief as he nodded approvingly.