May 16, 2022 - Podcasts

The racist conspiracy theory cited by the Buffalo shooter

A retired police officer, grocery store employees, and customers were among the ten people killed in a mass shooting Saturday in Buffalo, New York. It is the deadliest American mass shooting so far this year. The suspect, an 18-year-old white man, allegedly published a 180-page document that laid out specific plans to attack Black people and repeatedly cited the so-called “great replacement” theory.

  • Plus, Finland and Sweden look to join NATO.
  • And, a moment of joy for Ukraine courtesy of pop music.

Guests: Axios' Russell Contreras and Hans Nichols.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, May 16th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: Finland and Sweden look to join NATO. Plus, a moment of joy for Ukraine… courtesy of pop music.

But first, the racist conspiracy theory cited by the Buffalo mass shooter… is today’s One Big Thing.

A retired police officer, grocery store employee and customers were among the 10 people killed in a mass shooting Saturday in Buffalo, New York. It's the deadliest American mass shooting so far this year. Buffalo mayor Byron Brown said on NBC's Meet the Press yesterday morning that there was no doubt the shooter was motivated by racial hatred.

MAYOR BYRON BROWN: The individual that committed this crime drove from several hours away. They were not from this community. And they drove here with the express purpose of taking Black lives.

NIALA: Eight out of the 10 people killed were Black. The FBI has also said they're investigating the shooting as a hate crime. A manifesto allegedly written and posted by the suspect, an 18-year-old white man, laid out specific plans to attack Black people and repeatedly cited the so-called “great replacement theory.” This is the racist conspiracy with deep roots in neo-Nazism that there's a plot to change America's racial composition and reduce white Americans’ political power. Axios’ race and justice reporter Russell Contreras has been reporting on this conspiracy theory and how it's fueling white supremacy. Russ, what do we know about how this theory influenced the shooter in Buffalo this weekend?

RUSSELL CONTRERAS: Well, we don't know exactly. What we see in this alleged manifesto that he repeats a lot of the ideas that we see in far-right, white supremacist groups on websites, where they talk about white genocide. Great replacement theory or white replacement theory as it’s also known argues that there's existence of a plot by people of color to change America's racial composition by reducing white power, by committing quote,”white genocide.” The conspiracies have strains of antisemitism as well as racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. There are all kinds of conspiracy theories that Latino, Asian Americans and African Americans are plotting to remove white people from positions of power and take over the country.

NIALA: Russ, when you say a white genocide, what does that mean?

RUSSELL: Well, there's a belief by American neo-Nazis that there is an attempt to wipe out whites and either kill them or put them in position of slavery. This is of course, reversing the oppressor-victim dichotomy that we had in the country and tried to position whites as the victim. So to fight this quote, “white genocide,” they must somehow commit violence first.

NIALA: Where is the fear that this has happening coming from?

RUSSELL: We are seeing a lot more immigration from Asia. We're seeing immigration from Latin America and the birth rates of both of these populations are increasing. They surpassed whites. But now as this demographic shift is happening, whether it's in Texas, New Mexico, California, or New York, it's happening, as whites are seeing their political power fall. They're not in positions of power. They're being challenged because we need to have a more diverse nation reflective of our populations. But instead of seeing this as an effort of equity, there are some seeing this as an effort, as evidence that there's some conspiracy, some nefarious acts that are going on to violently remove them from power.

NIALA: Apart from what we saw this past weekend in Buffalo, how else have we seen this theory show up in different white supremacist violence in this country?

RUSSELL: In places like Charlottesville at the Unite the Right rally in 2017 there, as you remember, some of the demonstrators yelled “Jews will not replace us.” In El Paso, Texas, there was a shooter that drove across the state and targeted people of Mexican descent at a Walmart. He also wrote in his manifesto, he thought people of Mexican descent were attempting to replace people like him, a white male. So replacement theory, white genocide, these ideas have appeared in episodes across the U.S. in recent years. Some of them have been violent. Some of it is very obvious. Sometimes it's not so easy to place, but the ideas are there.

NIALA: Axios’ race and justice reporter Russell Contreras joining us from Albuquerque. Thanks Russ.

RUSSELL: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: One other related story you might have missed: Police in Dallas are investigating a series of recent attacks as hate crimes. The shooting of three women at a Korean hair salon last week is now thought to be racially motivated and is believed to be connected to at least two other shootings. You can read more about this in this morning’s Axios Dallas newsletter - we’ll put a link in our show notes.

In a moment, we’re back with what’s behind Sweden and Finland’s new applications to join NATO .

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NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

The leaders of Sweden in Finland announced yesterday their support for their countries applications to join NATO. For Sweden that would mean a possible reversal of more than 200 years of military non-alignment It also marks a major blow to Vladimir Putin as the war in Ukraine continues. Axios’ Hans Nichols is here to catch us up on the political implications of these moves. Hey, Hans.

HANS NICHOLS: Good morning.

NIALA: Why have Sweden and Finland put in this bid for NATO now?

HANS: Oh, they're nervous. There's been a sea change in public opinion in both of those democracies. And there's a consensus in the parties that they need to respond to that voter sentiment and take formal steps to joining NATO. This isn't a done deal. I mean, NATO sessions take awhile. Uh, things can go wrong. There can be objections from places like Turkey, but the very fact that they're interested in it tells us that something fundamental has changed.

NIALA: Can you just remind us of the geography?

HANS: So Finland has this massive border with Russia. It's about 800 miles but now way up further North, a little bit of Norway also touches Russia. I went up there, I don't know, four or five years ago with the US Marines on a training exercise. And the whole piece that I did was kind of a contest between me and the Marines by getting them to say why they were training there. And the answer I wanted as a reporter was your training there because of the Russians and the answer they gave was we're training here to be prepared, to fight in the Arctic.

But even in a country like Norway, which has such close relationships with the US military, they never quite wanted to poke the bear. They were always very careful about not making it seem as though this was against Russia or countering Russia or defensive on Russia. That sort of prohibition has gone away. You see it in, in the Finnish parliament, you see it in Swedish press. You see it pretty much everywhere in Scandinavia that they feel like they can no longer stop pretending that this isn't about Russia and because of Russia, that's why they’re joining.

NIALA: Why aren't Sweden and Finland already a part of NATO?

HANS: They wanted their neutrality. Finland saw the horrors of World War II. They fought a fight with the Soviets un 1939 I believe. They just thought Finlandization is the term was, was the easiest way to protect their people. And they went for the neutrality route. Sweden has more of a complicated history on it. And as you mentioned, 200 years or neutrality. But they also didn't want to be, you know, they didn't want to make themselves open up to a counter attack by Russia or a preemptive attack by Russia/Soviet Union. So they said the best way to sort of protect our people is to stay neutral.

NIALA: Hans, I'm not going to ask you to tell us what Vladimir Putin is thinking right now, but what does this mean for his plans as far as we can understand them.

HANS: Well, it's a gray zone, right. And it's dangerous because the, the concern, and I don't mean to say that, that for, against them joining. But concern was always that if you do announce an intent to join, you have to have security cooperation immediately after, because the minute you say you're going to join, that puts you at risk of some sort of countermove by Russia, by Putin. And so the way that the US and allies have sort of finessed this as, as they have said, well, we already have partnerships with them. We already do some training. But to be fully integrated into NATO, you need to have compatibility of systems. You have to do a lot more joint exercises. So the danger is really sort of in this gray zone in this window, when they've said they've wanted to join, but they're not in the club just yet.

NIALA: Hans Nichols is part of Axios’ politics team covering the White House. Thanks, Hans.

HANS: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: One moment of joy to end on today, courtesy of the wildly popular Eurovision music contest. The winning entry came from Ukraine and the folk-rap group Kalush Orchestra, with their song Stefania. Russia was banned from this year’s competition that included 25 countries. And a fun fact: last year the song contest drew a global TV audience of more than 180 million people.

We’ll have a link in our show notes to the winners’ video so you can check out the song.

That’s all we’ve got for you today!

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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