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The Buffalo Shooting Is About More Than One 'Mentally Ill Teenager'

The 18-year-old gunman drove several hours to target a Black community who were living in a "food desert." Why did he fear they were replacing him?

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Photo: Kent Nishimura (Getty Images)

Over the weekend, 18-year-old Peyton Gendron shot and killed ten people—including a former police lieutenant and a substitute teacher who was called “a pillar of the community,” among eight other beloved individuals. Parts of the attack were livestreamed via Twitch. The New York Times deemed the tragedy “one of the deadliest racist massacres in recent American history.” Of the 13 people Gendron shot, 11 were Black, while the other two were white.

Shortly after the killings, investigators discovered a 180-page manifesto that Gendron appeared to have written and posted on Discord and 4chan just days prior. The document outlined his self-proclaimed white supremacist and anti-semitic radicalization during the pandemic. He wrote that he “mostly agreed” with Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who killed 51 people attending a New Zealand mosque in March 2019. That attack was also livestreamed. The manifesto also detailed how Gendron had visited the grocery store three times prior to the shooting, specifically noting how many Black people entered. During one visit, he cited being approached by a Black security guard who questioned what he was doing. “I’m going to have to kill that security guard at Tops I hope he doesn’t kill me or even hurt me instantly,” Gendron wrote on both Discord and 4chan.

Gendron made explicitly clear why he chose to drive hours to target Tops Friendly Markets and specifically, Buffalo—because the city has a substantive Black population, and Tops is frequented by Black consumers, who had to fight to get a grocery store there at all in 2003.

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“The community had been a food desert,” a television sales executive who grew up nearby told NBC. “It represented progress in a neighborhood that had been largely ignored. Buffalo is divided along racial lines and there is a long history of racial issues and tensions.”

Since opening, the store has served as a crucial site for the community: Not only is it accessible by bus, but people are able to pay their utility bills there. Buffalo, according to recent data, carries startling poverty statistics—3 out of 10 Buffalo citizens are considered poor. Prior to Tops, the area was known as a place largely devoid of access to affordable food.

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While I could easily make the case that targeting a community of people who are forced to rely on a single grocery store that opened less than 20 years ago because you fear they’re “replacing” you is fundamentally ludicrous, there’s another important case to be made: When wealthy public figures—from television personality to politicians—are allowed to trumpet safe-for-TV versions of the same ideologies chanted at white nationalist rallies and cited in the manifestos of mass murderers, accountability is as urgent as ever. And it must transcend the ultimately inconsequential fodder from CNN pundits and think-pieces that most people will only skim.

The line is easy to draw: In August 2017, when videos from a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville were posted online, we heard these torch-carrying men chant, “The Jews will not replace us!” Though the origins of this rhetoric date back centuries, for some, it was the first indicator of a more modern, and increasingly mainstream, movement—one that, for the last decade, has become all the more empowered to espouse racist ideology as the reason for violent acts of extremism.

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Five years later, Renaud Camus’ “great replacement theory” is no longer reserved for radicals’ underground meetings or deadly rallies. Now, all anyone has to do is turn on American cable news or follow national politics to find the same strains of white supremacy—due largely in part to television personalities like Fox host Tucker Carlson and lawmakers like Representatives Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY). Even current candidates—namely, Senate hopeful JD Vance—have not only adopted such dangerous rhetoric, but managed to normalize it enough for broad public consumption. “Democrat politicians have decided that they can’t win reelection in 2022 unless they bring in a large number of new voters to replace the voters that are already here. That’s what this is about,” Vance, who’s currently running for Senate to represent Ohio, told Carlson in a recent interview. “We have an invasion in this country because very powerful people get richer and more powerful because of it.”

Carlson, of course, refuses to take any kind of responsibility for the white supremacy espoused by the shooter.

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But a recent Times investigation revealed that in more than 400 episodes of his show, Tucker Carlson gave credence to the notion that Democratic politicians and other figures in the country’s ruling class are forcing demographic change through immigration. Media experts and activists believe there’s a link between such rhetoric and the violence perpetrated across the country.

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“In the context of Carlson and of conservative politicians, they are presenting to their viewers a sort of stripped-down version of this conspiracy theory—a version that doesn’t make the direct references to white racial superiority, that doesn’t explicitly make links to anti-semitic conspiracies but is always presented with enough context clues so the layman viewer can make those connections independently,” Nikki McCann Ramírez, Associate Research Director at Media Matters, told Jezebel.

“If you look at the way they [conservative public figures] discuss that immigration issue, the conversation is always extremely racialized,” Ramirez continued. “It always leads viewers to a position where they should understand that immigration isn’t necessarily an electoral issue, but also a cultural issue.”

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In the current culture wars, immigration has undoubtedly emerged as one of the most effective racist dog whistles for conservatives, and an onslaught of recent comments—not just from Carlson but more disturbingly, elected officials and those seeking office—are evidence of such.

We are being replaced and invaded,” Republican state Sen. Wendy Rogers (AZ) tweeted in July. “Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION,” claimed Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) in a campaign advertisement. “Tucker Carlson is CORRECT about Replacement Theory as he explains what is happening to America,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) tweeted in September. And Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters claimed that Democrats want to “change the demographics of this country” in a bid to “consolidate power so they can never lose another election.”

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This ideology has quietly become so ubiquitous that you could search the name of any conservative talking head + “replacement theory,” and results would likely span pages. Whether or not they actually mean it or are simply working for more votes or dollar signs doesn’t actually matter when people are clearly listening, and firearms have never been more accessible.

When asked how we can pursue accountability and who deserves it first, Ramirez noted companies like Procter & Gamble’s choice to advertise on Fox news. “That is what’s funding a lot of this rhetoric—companies like Procter & Gamble want to keep giving money to Tucker Carlson to continue espousing this rhetoric. Well, Procter and Gamble should also be held responsible, right?” Ramirez said. “In terms of politicians and media personalities, I think one of the most important things is that they aren’t self-funded.”

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That leaves much of the responsibility to the consumer. But it’s impossible to expect anyone to entirely divest from every entity with unsavory or suspicious ties. Therefore, as wealthy companies continue to profit from the furthering of white nationalist beliefs, and the dog whistles of conservative politicians grow more powerful, marginalized communities—and the people simply trying to survive in them—will continue to suffer the most.