“You will not replace us!” chanted tiki torch-wielding fascists marching in Charlottesville in 2017, prompting many of us to wonder, what the ever-loving fuck?
These were the same white supremacists who had been caught Sieg Heil-ing in victory over Trump’s inauguration seven months earlier. Their cause didn’t exactly seem to be on a downswing. Many who know the sick history of white supremacist rhetoric in the United States, however, immediately understood the reference: The chant was a nod to “Great Replacement,” a mainstream-friendly laundering of neo-Nazi white genocide conspiracy theory from the 1970s, which contends that a secret Jewish elite is conspiring to replace white people with people of color. It’s a narrative that has spread like wildfire through the reactionary right in the past two decades and especially the past five years, popping up in the manifestos of the Christchurch and El Paso mass murderers, lurking in Tucker Carlson’s broadcasts and Charlie Kirk’s tweets, and parroted by Republican politicians.
The 2017 Unite the Right demonstrations in Charlottesville occurred in a pre-pandemic, pre-Biden United States. Trump had just taken office, giving self-proclaimed white nationalists a newfound sense of hope. Since then, however, the fascist fantasy of a white supremacist takeover (or topple) of government is a dream deferred, if not yet denied, and the MAGA crowd has taken hit after hit—not the least of them relating to the pandemic. Red states that went big for Trump also went hard against vaccination, making them especially vulnerable to covid fatality. White racists have watched their unvaccinated neighbors and loved ones die. Unable to bring themselves to admit that their anti-vax stance is responsible for those deaths, they’ve increasingly turned to right-wing media and politicians to account for their grief. They have no interest in facing the consequences of their science denialism; instead, they’d prefer to continue to do what they’ve always done: claim victimhood and angrily blame perceived outsiders.
Neo-Nazis invented the myth of white genocide precisely to exploit this tendency. It is tailor-made for pandemic times. But these are no longer just pandemic times: As Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito made clear in an opinion draft leaked this week, he and presumably a majority of the conservative-heavy court intend to stamp out the legal right to abortion in their June ruling on Roe v. Wade. We are wading into the end times for bodily autonomy. And the increasing acceptance of the blatant white natalist narrative poses a deep threat to those capable of giving birth that will extend well beyond the covid era.
The notion of white genocide has always been explicitly tied to reproductive politics. Sterilization-obsessed eugenicists worried that Black and immigrant reproduction would outpace white fertility, a fear amplified and exploited by Third Reich propagandists. The phrase “white genocide” itself has its origins in the United States’ neo-Nazi movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which suggested that Jews planned to exterminate the white race through the promotion of contraception and abortion. In the same era, contraception and abortion were becoming more safely available—mostly to white women.
The conspiracy theory began gaining mainstream traction at the start of the 21st century and was further popularized among avowed white supremacists by neo-Nazi terrorist and murderer David Lane, according to Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter and spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors and reports on organized white supremacist activity in the United States.
“The first time we really see white genocide-related rhetoric sticking in a measurable way starts around 2001, after census data projects that white people will no longer represent a majority of people living in this country,” Hayden told Jezebel. (The year it projected? Somewhere between 2055 and 2060; newer census data says the country will be “minority white” in 2045.) “White nationalists and neo-Nazis use Obama’s election to boost it further less than a decade later.”
White genocide conspiracy theory, in other words, is nothing new. It did, however, gain new cultural palatability with The Great Replacement, a 2011 book that softpedals on antisemitism while leaving the rest of the racist conspiracy theory intact. “‘Great replacement’ branding…seems to have more traction than ‘white genocide’ perhaps because it focuses more on this idea of elites orchestrating a grand, insidious plot, rather than clashing directly through violence and cruelty,” said Hayden. In other words, replacement theory lets everyday racists feel less like they’re aligning themselves with Hitler and more like they’re solving a murder mystery, even as it allows them to play the (white) victim.
These days, white replacement conspiracy theory is anything but fringe. From Marjorie Taylor Greene sharing videos explicitly endorsing the lie, to Fox News’ intensive campaign to inject white genocide talk into mainstream conversation, to Rep. Paul Gosar mass emailing his constituents about white replacement by immigrants, Republicans and the rest of the mainstream United States right wing have embraced Great Replacement stories. It’s a myth that has staying power for a reason. White people experiencing what New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow termed “white extinction anxiety” fear a loss of racial privilege. That fear gives them not only a target for their alarm, but a reason “to believe that their violent beliefs and acts are justified,” said feminist theorist, educator, and anti-rape activist Wagatwe Wanjuki. “This strategic form of victimhood is a constant in American history—and today it’s utilized by the Republican Party to justify its deadly agenda that disproportionately harms women of color and other marginalized folk.”
The notion that a single, sinister, and conspiratorial, but ultimately vanquishable, enemy lurks behind the liberatory movements challenging white patriarchy comforts white supremacists. It also provides a solution: forcible eugenics for Black and brown people, and, in the words of disinformation expert and anti-racist activist Shafiqah Hudson, “forcing white uterus-bearing bodies to carry to term and give birth to, of course, more white people to reinforce and maintain this status quo.” In a society operating under this paradigm, abortions rights are targeted for elimination—but so are the uteruses of undocumented Latinx immigrants. We’re a country where covid precaution rhetoric is used to provide cover to far right efforts to restrict abortion access, but abandoned long before it might benefit or protect essential workers in majority-nonwhite, high-risk industries like home healthcare. And while forced birth organizations have in recent years attempted to superficially appropriate the rhetoric of anti-racism to advance their goals, the actual history of the contemporary anti-abortion movement, its ties to radical white power groups, and its support of openly white supremacist, eugenic politicians like Donald Trump and Steve King belie these haphazard and half-assed efforts to claim the mantle of civil rights.
“White nationalists explicitly claim the anti-choice movement as their movement, and they show up in force at anti-choice demonstrations like the March for Life,” Moira Donegan, a columnist for The Guardian covering gender and politics, told Jezebel. “The leader of Aryan Nations says that opposition to abortion rights is ‘part of our holy war for the pure Aryan race.’”
Thanks to covid, white genocide conspiracy theory has found its way into the limelight once again, and in an even bigger way. Though Black and brown communities are overwhelmingly hit the hardest by the pandemic, deaths of people of color are—like most Black and brown pain—invisible to the MAGA crowd, whose political convictions revolve around the belief that their own suffering is disproportionate and intentionally inflicted by the powers that be as punishment for their whiteness. Public health practices like masking, isolation, and most especially vaccination are already seen as efforts to control, injure, and even murder white people. As covid deaths in the U.S. near a million and another variant rears its head, new pandemic-related conspiracy theories are beginning to spread, too, largely thanks to the propagandic efforts of Carlson. In January, for example, Carlson began circulating the false conspiracy theory that medical and testing centers are systematically denying white people covid treatment on the basis of race—just as white reactionaries seem especially primed for racist disinformation.
“It’s pretty clear that a two-term Black President broke reality for a lot of white Americans, so much so that by 2016, the GOP wasn’t even pretending to not be the party of white identity politics,” Hudson told Jezebel. “Making white people believe that covid is being used in the service of…white genocide isn’t hard, when they’re already convinced that they’re being erased because Obama, and too many people of color in their television commercials.”
Accelerated fears of white genocide perpetrated by a non-existent “globalist elite” (read: Jewish cabal) combined seamlessly with cresting anti-science conspiracy from the very beginning of the pandemic. Radical white supremacists quickly reworked theories formerly relegated to the antisemitic fringe—vaccine microchipping, Israeli bioweapons, nefarious largescale New World Order population control, and most especially white genocide—re-shaping them so racist covid narratives could slide right into place. As the pandemic progressed and the Trumpian right increasingly embraced vaccine hesitancy, white supremacists used the moment to inject the themes of white replacement and declining birth rates more and more overtly into the conversation.
“The gene therapy laden globalist needle sticks ever deeper into our collective necks… another 5000 European reproductive systems have been injected with the magic potion which obsesses the elites like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” warned a post by a white supremacist Telegram channel in December. “Hidden Pfizer COVID Covid-19 Vaccine Trial Data suggests all Pregnant Vaccinated Women Miscarried,” screamed a headline recently shared by the notorious white supremacist outlet Red Ice TV.
Unsurprisingly, politicians and demagogues in the mainstream far right have sought to exploit the popularization of covid-specific white genocide theory and declining birth rate scare tactics. Nowhere has this phenomenon been more pronounced than in Texas, where Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has openly endorsed “Great Replacement” as fact, accused Latinx immigrants of spreading “Third-World diseases,” and blamed covid spread specifically on Black populations. It is no coincidence that the most aggressive covid-era attacks on abortion rights in the country—the chilling S.B. 8 law—have come from a state government that routinely and deliberately suggests that its white constituents are victims of a nonwhite “invasion” that is spreading sickness as part of a larger Great Replacement agenda.
The Abbott administration in Texas, and Patrick in particular, are a case study on the confluence of the mainstreaming of Great Replacement theory and enthusiasm for forcing pregnant people to give birth. “I am also determined to pass those remaining legislative priorities that are still under discussion—including… legislation to protect life,” reads a 2019 release on Patrick’s own website. “The reported U.S. birth rate for this year is about 4 million. That means that if illegal immigration continues at its current rate, more people will enter America illegally this year than will be born here.”
When COVID struck, Patrick and the rest of the Abbott administration leapt at the opportunity to leverage the crisis against abortion rights, banning doctors from performing what they claimed were “nonessential” medical procedures—and making a special point of emphasizing that they considered abortion to fall under this category. Almost exactly a year after the “nonessential” procedure ban, forced birth advocates in the Texas State Senate would introduce S.B. 8, the “Heartbeat Act” abortion ban bill later signed into law by Abbott and ultimately used by the anti-abortion lobby to undermine the longstanding precedent of Roe v. Wade and inspire other sickening state-level bans.
In the wake of Texas’ introduction of S.B. 8, Biden’s FDA effectively legalized abortion-by-mail. Despite the legality, however, pregnant people in Texas who avail themselves of self-administered medication abortion are still at risk of targeting, harassment, and legal troubles. When 26 year-old Lizelle Herrera used pills to terminate her pregnancy and later sought care at a Texas hospital, staff reported her to local law enforcement, who in turn arrested her for murder and imprisoned her for three days on a $500,000 bond, though the county district attorney later dropped all charges. “This arrest proves the true intent of those who are fighting to overturn Roe: the surveillance, control, and criminalization of pregnant people. It is a tragedy, and just the tip of the iceberg,” legal group National Advocates for Pregnant Women tweeted at the time.
The Herrera arrest is telling not only because it reveals the perils faced by abortion-seeking patients in forced birth states like Texas—and in a post-Roe America—but also because it tells us who will be targeted first in these attempts to harass and intimidate pregnant people into giving up their constitutionally protected rights.
In a state where officials as high-ranking as the Lt. Governor fear-monger about Latinx “invasion,” declining white birth rates, and the spread of disease by nonwhites, it is no coincidence that the first person directly targeted for prosecution under the Heartbeat Act for self-induced abortion is a Latinx woman from a border town who was rumored to have obtained pregnancy-terminating medication from sources in Mexico. Had authorities successfully prosecuted Herrera, her case would have advanced both the anti-abortion movement and the white natalist movement: Such imprisonment would potentially discourage women of all races from seeking medication-assisted abortion to circumvent the Heartbeat Act, but it would also have put a brown woman behind bars, potentially for the rest of the reproductive period of her life. A successful murder prosecution wouldn’t have restored Herrera’s lost fetus, but it would most certainly have prevented her from bringing children to term at any time in the near future.
White supremacists want more white babies and fewer nonwhite people, and they want it by any means necessary. By exploiting covid, they’ve been able to mainstream racist replacement theory to that end in ways they only dreamed of back when they were marching on Charlottesville with tiki torches. It’s how they pushed through the Texas abortion ban, and it’s what they’re doing when they tell anti-vaxxers to blame the covid deaths of their loved ones on Black people and immigrants. It’s an established pattern, and it’s a strategy that appears to be working alarmingly well. The pattern will spread if unchecked—and some Democrats can’t bring themselves to utter the word “abortion.” Even as Roe faces a Supreme Court gutting, some politicians do not attempt to address the knots that tie abortion rights to the ongoing battle against covid or the white nationalism inherent to our country’s governance. It’s on us to call these racist tactics out for what they are, and fight back. Our reproductive freedoms depend on it.
Gwen Snyder (pronouns: she/they) is a Philadelphia-based researcher, organizer, and writer. She served as the executive director of the direct action economic justice coalition Philadelphia Jobs with Justice from 2009 to 2017. She now focuses on researching, writing about, and organizing to counter far right reactionary violence and build accountable, liberatory movements. Follow her on Twitter at @gwensnyderphl.