Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to Who Do We Think We Are? Beyond the Headlines – the podcast which dissects the major global news stories about contemporary migration. I’m Michaela Benson.
Ala Sirriyeh [AS]: And I’m Ala Sirriyeh. In our day-jobs, we’re sociologists at Lancaster University, and we work on migration. We’ve also got our own family migration stories that inspired our research in this area. Join us over the course of the series to hear more about our frustrations with the way that migration is so often reported in mainstream media, and how going beyond the headlines can create the space for thinking differently about migration today.
MB: In our second episode of beyond the headlines, we’re joined by Aaron Winter. Aaron is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of East London and the co-author of the book “Reactionary Democracy”, with Aurelien Mondon. And he will be joining the Lancaster Sociology Department in September, and Ala and I are very, very excited about this, for lots of reasons. And there are a lot of accolades against Aaron’s name and I’m just going to mention one of them: he’s also the co-editor of the journal “Identities”, who publish fantastic work on the relationship between power-identity-belonging on a kind of global scale. So, we’re really, really delighted that he joins us today. Welcome, Aaron.
Aaron Winter [AW]: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
AS: Welcome, Aaron. And yes, we’re really excited to have you joining us at Lancaster very soon. And, so, I’m just going to introduce the headline that we have this month, and we can have a bit of a chat about it. So, the title of this month’s headline … just to say, first of all, the headline is from Al Jazeera news, and it was published on the 18th of May 2022. So, the title reads: “Great Replacement: The conspiracy theory stoking racist violence”. And the story that it’s in reference to is, of course, the mass shooting that happened during it was published, a few days earlier in Buffalo in the US; where a white gunman shot 13 people, 11 of whom were were black, in a grocery store in a predominantly black neighbourhood, and 10 of those 13 people were murdered in the shooting. So, this article discusses how the “great replacement” theory has been referenced a lot in regard to this mass shooting, but also others perpetrated by white supremacist in the US and Canada, in New Zealand. And it talks about how this is a conspiracy theory that outlines the idea that white populations are becoming a minority, due to high immigration rates or high birth rates, as well, among racially minoritized populations. And then, the article also focuses a lot on how the “great replacement” theory is becoming mainstream. It references some individuals – people like Donald Trump, Fox News host Tucker Carlson – as promoting and disseminating these ideas. So, I wonder if we could start by, perhaps, if you could give us your immediate reaction to that headline?
AW: Yeah, I mean, there’s terrible, terrible events which occurred. One of the things that is central to sort of my research and my interest is the way in which the media, and analysts and commentators, respond to racist incidents and racist violence and far right terrorism. So, I always have a critical eye on for that. The entire story and the entire incident had been defined by this particular conspiracy theory and the way in which it saw ideas in the form of this conspiracy theory, stoking racist violence and the causal relationship between it. I was, I guess, quite interested as well in the subtitle: the “[r]oots of white supremacist conspiracy theory are not new” – which I think is a really important point to make – “but experts say ‘great replacement’ has become mainstream”. And I was sort of struggling with the relationship between whether something is new and has become mainstream, partly because what I, what I work on is the mainstreaming of far right ideas and narratives. And I thought, I guess, there was a lot to unpack there. I don’t think white supremacy, white supremacist conspiracy theories are new. I also don’t think they’re reducible to the “great replacement”. I do think, not only has the “great replacement” itself, as a far right sort of conspiracy theory and a narrative, become mainstream, quite shockingly, but it also intersects with a lot of already mainstream more so-called “moderate versions” of anti-immigrant discourses, narratives, rhetoric and conspiracy theories; as well as anti-Muslim ones and anti-semitic ones. But I also thought that going back to the idea of whether it is something new, I would say that, I guess, this is where the idea that something sort of so extreme that causes violence is somehow being mainstreamed as if it originates in the extremes and only travels into the mainstream – when we know America is also built on white supremacy, and its history, its political, kind of mass mobilizations in different eras, have been informed by and defined by white fears of losing power – and so, in a sense, no, this is not new. No, it’s not reducible to a conspiracy theory. And no, it is not something that merely travels to the mainstream from the far right and causes violence. It is also something that in its more mainstream moderate forms, which we already exist on, do harm to people’s lives, communities, and more. And it’s not only these horrific acts of violence that do occur in a very suspicious pattern, indict this and indict anti-immigrant discourses and rhetoric, racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia.
AS: Wow, I mean, there’s so much to unpack in this article. And we’ll definitely, we’ll come back to some of those points in a bit, particularly that relationship between the new and the historical, and that kind of direction of travel, as well, to mainstream and more extreme kind of violence. So, I wanted first of all to say a little bit more about some of the context in which this has happened before we start talking a bit more about the “replacement theory”. So, perhaps, would you be able to say a little bit more about the context in Buffalo and what happened there, to shape our discussion a bit further?
AW: So, I mean, you did a good job of summarising it earlier. But what we know is the perpetrator did go into an area that was seen as a predominantly black neighbourhood and targeted shoppers, residents, people going about their business. And I … if I remember correctly, I mean, he did … he had racist terms: we had a manifesto in a diary, which detail his own journey to what is frequently called sort of “radicalization”, a term I’m not totally comfortable with. It’s … his journey and that “radicalization” has become a preoccupation, I think, particularly with sort of terrorism experts and counterterrorism agencies. But we, we know, he made nods to Christchurch attacker, Brevik (Norway), and a number of other as part of almost a lineage or a sort of tradition of mass attacks on racialized people. And we know that he cites the “great replacement” – sort of the far right ecosystem. And we know this has informed his thinking and his actions. What has interested me quite a bit about this is the incredible amount of attention on him, what he was thinking, what he did, instead of the victims and the communities most greatly affected, and that’s not uncommon. It’s quite interesting in the way in which, when white and far right racist attackers do so, their entire biography and meeting and motivations becomes both this focus of attention – the focus of action – but also empathised with in a lot of cases. So, we see discussion about mental illness and … but the grievances (!?) And this is where it becomes sort of broadened out. It’s not just his individual grievance, but it’s white grievances. And I think it’s really important to note that because we have an approach to far right extremism and terrorism that focuses on the grievances of the white, often the young men, or older men. And then we have a political moment, or period: all parties are supposed to focus us on the grievances of white people. So, white grievance on a political level means you have to control immigration. White grievance on an individual level means it may lead to terrorism and extremism – racist terrorism and extremism – and we have to stop it in order to stop those attacks. But, at no point, is there a discussion about why we only care about grievance when it’s white, or we only care about racism when it’s violence and it leads us back to white grievance. These kind of horrific actions or acts are also those that – we’re told on a daily basis – the parties (political parties) need to get to because “white people are afraid”.
MB: I think that’s really comprehensive of how events like this get used to justify a democratic mandate to act in particular ways, when actually the politics might pre-exist that. And when you were speaking there about this kind of simultaneous individualization – the focus on the grievance rather than on the victims – I was reminded of an excellent article by Maria Cecilia Hwang and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, where they tried to recenter the victims of the Atlanta shootings within the narrative around the Atlanta shootings. And I thought that this was really, really helpful, not only in terms of thinking about kind of the questions around, you know, the centering of grievances, but also questions of gender, which are also inherent to that mainstreaming of the far right narrative as well. I wondered if we could kind of shift from there to talk a little bit more about that relationship that you identified between recognising the specificity of things that are happening in the moment and drawing out that longer-term relationship between things like the “great replacement” theory and kind of state action, I suppose, and extremism?
AW: One issue would be the focus on the “great replacemen”t as the be- and end-all. So, the idea is that if you’ve identified it, if you stop people – members of the Republican Party, the media – talking about it and reproducing it – which also intersects with the online kind of reproduction of these conspiracy theories – the idea that this will all be gone, and this is a very sort of presentist approach to it. But also, and this links into sort of what me and Aurelien talk about, illiberal racism: the idea that you find the most explicit, most unacceptable form of something. And in a sense, I think what we’re dealing with, with the “great replacement”, we’re dealing with three things. One is the identification of all the problems and all the racist narratives and discourses into that one conspiracy theory enables us to, you know, reproduce the story of the “great replacement” and its production, its publication, its travel, etc. And it also distracts from, I guess, mainstream systemic racism. I think the other thing we’re talking about is whether this is new or not, and this is where we have sort of like a long deray of racism and white supremacy, that we need to tell that story too. We need to tell that story in relation to the “great replacement” and the act which occurred. At the same time, we have to look at, you know, the individual actor and act, and the victims who were there and who lost their lives or whose lives were affected, and who were badly wounded and traumatised. But we also have to not individualise it, we have to look at it in terms of a wider pattern and history of white supremacy and racist harms.
MB: Yeah, I mean, it’s really complex, what you’ve just outlined there, and I was kind of thinking to myself, you know, some of the things that you’re talking about are really at the heart of how we construct sociological knowledge, looking at those different types of scales and kind of drawing out those different relationships, and kind of piecing them together in that way. But I think that you’re warning that, by individualising things, we kind of basically exempt the state from any role within this or exempt those kind of wider structural forces for providing the bedrock upon which this builds. I think it’s a really, really important one, because it does seem that, you know, the work of that narrative is a work that obscures, as you’ve said, those longer histories, but also obscures victims and obscures the role in the state in sustaining white supremacy in this respect. So, I wondered if we could kind of move on from there and kind of think about what work is being done in reports like this? Well, not maybe like this one. But other reports where we’ve seen, for example, the focus on that kind of prominent, lone, troubled shooter, for example – what’s happening there?
AW: It’s a finishing one, because I … When you mentioned the state, that’s one of the issues I’m quite preoccupied with right now. Because if we look at how do you fight far right white supremacy and white supremacist violence? Do you put the state, which is institutionally racist, in charge of fighting for ..? And I’m not even talking about infiltration of security services – military police – by the far right. The infiltration is one of those literal kind of problems that ignore the systemic issues like the culture of the military, the culture of policing, and racism, and masculinity. But, also, the fact is that we, you know, when we see these kinds of incidents, we also know the number of black people have been killed by the police, we know the impact of counterterrorism – state counterterrorism – on Muslim communities and Black Lives Matter. The individualization allows you to say: “here’s our racist, here’s our extremist, here’s our problem; now it’s gone, we’ve exercised the body politic”. And we see this historically in the way in which, I always say this, like, there’s this idea going around whenever something like this happens, why do they never call it terrorism when white people do it? Well, they do. They often do, to remove it, to compartmentalise it and to remove it from all the mainstream systemic and institutional white supremacy that needs to keep going.
MB: So, basically, it becomes a way of saying: “that person is a racist, we got rid of them so we’re not racist”, as a way of kind of abdicating responsibility for structural and institutional racism in lots of ways. Even when you see kind of attacks by police or security services, that argument is always: “oh, it was that, that, that ‘bad apple’, that individual”. It’s not attention to those wider structures, is it? So …
AW: There’s hardly going to be a revolution in any of these institutions and agencies. Reform is the best, but individualization is what, or ‘bad apples’, is what you get. You know, you have to work your way through this to get to mild reform. I think that’s part of the problem, but also the fact that it’s what … it’s the same discourse or body of ideas or economy that treats Nazism and genocide, or Jim Crow segregation, or slavery, as the be- and end-all of discussion about racism. Anything else is … it’s either not racism or, you know, literally, pales in comparison in such a way that we can’t have this discussion. So, the idea is that there’s certain discourses in which the recognition of racism precludes any more discussion from anyone who may have experience with it, or statistics.
AS: And, so, where … As you’re talking now, I was thinking about that kind of shifting of the blame, really, by this day, and, I mean, I was thinking it’s not directly related to sort of what you’re discussing, but, in some ways, it mirrors some of the, some of the debates in immigration actually about that move away from kind of addressing structural causes that we see in some of the debates about controlling borders: that it’s always, it’s always the smugglers who are to blame or these particular people perpetrating these individual acts, you know, and there’s quick condemnation of those people involved, rather than looking at some of the state policies that have produced the conditions under which people travel. So, this is sort of … it just seems to be, I mean, even beyond this quite specific example, it seems to be a sort of a way in which states operate. So, to shift that blame and control that direction of the conversation. I wondered if you could say a little bit more about how the “great replacement” theory relates, perhaps more specifically, to anti-immigration narratives, and some of the other kinds of conspiracies we see around debates around migration?
AW: Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, I think the example of sort of, like, you know, blaming migrants themselves, or, you know, you know, smugglers, it’s quite an interesting one. The thing about “great replacement” is … I mean, let’s look at it as a particular text, by Camus. It is particular, in some ways, it is particular to France, and European, sort of post-colonial backlash, if you will, about the idea of, I mean, in their, in his own words, like, “reverse colonialism”, and the way it is about migration from former colonies, particularly Muslims with all the racist baggage about immigrants and Muslims. And so, it is particularly about immigration in this context, and I think in the wider European context, where it can construct this idea of, you know, an English person or a British person or a French person or a German person, as particularly white with a long history within this … within that country. And so, it is represented, not that colonialism is bad, but the idea that people from former colonies coming in are “invaders” and they “do not belong” and their culture is “not compatible with”. And I’m describing it that way because, in a sense, that’s also quite a typical conventional idea within mainstream right-wing, and even some centrist anti-immigration, discourses, policies, programmes. I think in the United States, and in Canada, you have something a little different, because you’re talking about effectively white-settler colonies with histories of both settlement and settlers, and immigrants. In a sense, the idea about “being replaced” does have a very particular anti-immigration history, particularly if we go back to the 1920s, where there was concerns about Jewish, Catholic, so-called “probationary” white immigration bringing, not only their cultures – diluting whiteness – bringing communism over. And I think you see a lot of this in the communist conspiracy theories of that period, up until the 1950s. Now, you’re also seeing it today, with the idea that, like then, Jews are central to it, but they’re bringing their sort of so-called “Cultural Marxism” and they’re stirring up revolution from within amongst the black community and black activists. But, and I am going about this sort of a different way, then you can go back to the longer history – longer American history – and the idea of whites being “replaced”, or being “minoritized” and “oppressed”, is not an anti-immigrant story. It’s a post-slavery argument. It’s an argument about the emancipation of slaves, which is something that – like the Jewish figure in this concurrent anti-semitic conspiracy theory is – the northerners are pushing for abolition in order to dominate. We also see this, again, in particularly Republican anti-Democrat rhetoric and campaigning: “but the Democrats are going to open the borders, they’re going to give these people rights, they’re run by Soros Jewish money”. So, we see all these features at different points coming together in different ways. At some point, it’s much more about immigration, and it’s much more about Muslims and Islam. But, historically, that is actually morphed. Now, I don’t want to say that what happened earlier was the same thing as the “great replacement”. But, you know, in a way, this helps also explain why it’s so pervasive, why it’s something that can be mobilised on, and why it’s something that can be adapted.
AS: Yeah. And it seems to have sort of – although, it’s one big … it pretences one big theory – actually it has very different strands with very specific contexts and histories to them that are not … don’t collapse easily into one another in that sense. It’s standing for a lot of things, really.
AW: What’s interesting is that we see this suspicious pattern of white men committing horrific acts of violence based on what are effectively very mainstreamed ideas. We also have to look at what’s happening globally in terms of – in particular across the West – in terms of political campaigning, the hollowing out of the left and the pro-immigration open-borders, or even, like, you know, slightly ajar borders, kind of argument. I mean, this just hollows that out. It moves the spectrum to the right and to the more reactionary, and to the more racist. But at the same time, you have to be aware of the contextual contours of these things.
MB: I mean, I’m really struck by the kind of conversation to be had around how we ethically address those connections over time, and how we approach these in their specificity at the same time. And it’s a really big challenge. And I know, it’s one that you’ve been addressing through your work a little bit. I just wanted to briefly turn it towards the UK context a little bit. And, you know, one of the things that you and I share is a slightly dubious achievement of having written about Brexit and reflected on Brexit – the big arguments that came up through Farage and through the kind of the Leave campaign, predominantly, as was really this argument around, well, Brexit actually delivering for a white working class in Britain who had historically been left behind. So, I suppose, I’d like to hear from you a little bit more about how … So, thinking about how this plays out in the UK a little bit.
AW: I think, one of the things we’ve seen here … The Farage thing is quite interesting, because in a sense, it was saying the quiet part loud, right? At the same time, I mean, I think he’s been on BBC Question Time more than any other politician. So, in a sense, he mainstreamed the thing you’re supposed to say quietly, which is interesting. And then you have, you know, Douglas Murray writes “The War on the West”; you have Katie Hopkins, you have … you have all these figures who are of various stages of extreme and mainstream on mainstream channels giving different versions of this kind of racist white grievance, white sort of “white genocide” theory. You also have academics working on white demographic shifts and fears of shifts and why all the mainstream parties need to rush to capture this vote. It is true that we’ve mainstreamed anti-immigrant politics discourse. We’ve mainstreamed how, like, the ways in which we can go to dehumanise and to deny both humanity stakes and interests of people in any political discussion, and the discussion with … the discussion has become: “How harsh can we be?” Not “should we be” but “can we be”. And the Hostile Environment would be an example of that, like, explicitly saying … this was in 2012 (?) You know, “we have to make it difficult for people, we have to make this environment as hostile as possible”. I mean, it’s, it’s not a far cry for like, you know, Douglas Murray’s how we can … “we should make things difficult for Muslims”. And Katie Hopkins, you know, taking the gunboats out. You know, it’s the … We’ve mainstreamed this, but we’ve done, the way in which it’s been done – and this is, I think, where whiteness and white grievance and white “replacement” comes in – is that actually central to this has been the main … not just the sort of, like, has been liberal racism and Islamophobia as we write about, but also the complete legitimization and increased value of white grievance and white fear as a political currency. And so, in doing that, you’ve constructed this idea of the white working class left behind, who are effectively often represented as working class people, but it’s white people. Their concerns are always about whiteness, as they’re represented. Racism and anti … and bordering is the “solution” to the white grievance. So, what it often is it’s white cultural racism, or cultural loss and racism, masquerading as a class politics and a socio-economic condition, and a slippage between them. And one of the ways it does that is it’s often a very classist idea, because it treats working class people as white. It then treats white working class people, that they’ve constructed, as predominantly racist. And then it says: “we’ll look after you, our political parties will look after you by ramping up the racism and making you feel more at home in your own country”, which solidifies this kind of dehumanisation and exclusion of anyone else as belonging to this nation. But what’s interesting about that is it’s, often, it’s elite driven and it is represented by elites, by government, by states, by the media. But key to it maintaining … So, it also leaves the working class hanging with the stigma and the blame when all of this goes completely wrong, because it’s not addressing any form of inequality. Inequality that white working class people experience, much less racialized working class people who aren’t the sharpest end of inequality. But what I would say is that the idea that it is the working class becomes a proxy for caring about class and inequality, and structural material issues.
AS: I think what’s interesting, as well – it kind of almost circling back to the earlier points of this sort of exceptional extreme white government – is that, then, the stigmatisation of … instead of the working class as being … they are the real racists. So, there’s kind of … there’s the playing up to this, suppose it, sort of mythical constituency by some of the more elite politicians. But then, at the same time, there’s so much disgust also for that position as well. So, they’re kind of, yeah, sort of targeted, but also stigmatised in that same process.
AW: I mean, look back to the reporting on the following or in the midst of the anti-statue protests – the Black Lives Matter and anti-statue protests – where you have these guys who are represented, I sort of, like, they’re represented horribly. They’re protesting or defending statues, and there is an image of one guy urinating on a memorial or some kind of monument, and this becomes the kind of, like: “Oh, look at these people, look at what they’re doing; they’re working class, they’re racist, they’re this …” Whereas, you know, the Old Etonians in Whitehall and in parliament are looking down going: “Oh, that’s such a shame”, defending the exact same statues, exact same. But also, they’re also defending the massive class inequality in this country.
MB: I think that that’s … it’s really, really interesting drawing out these connections between the political elite and how they’re kind of obscured in that narrative that focuses on these kind of … on these communities that they’re apparently defending. Because there’s always that process of outsourcing, outsourcing where, you know, where the narrative comes from, and then just delivering.
AS: My final question was, is really, what are your takeaway messages for how we might think differently around the uses of the “great replacement” theory? I mean, there’s a lot, there’s a lot to pack into a final takeaway message, if you can do so?
AW: We have to see the connections between more structural, and systemic and institutional, and long historical forms of racism – and they’re more individualised and extreme or/and often externalised manifestations – because, I think, it’s really important that we don’t forget about the more extreme forms when we’re talking about how racism and how white supremacy are maintained and policed in communities, in the streets and in the media, as a distraction or a sort of, you know, paramilitary force. But I also think it’s important that we don’t flatten it out, or focus on one and not the other. I think it’s the relationship between iterations, manifestations, and forms of racism that are really, really important to understand and engage with. And I think that includes – and I think more than anything – and this is something I’m sort of really working on at the moment, is the way in which when we see more extreme forms of racism and racist violence, we evoke the state to manage the problem. The state that has been grossly guilty of institutional racism, state racism, and legitimising that very far right, those very white supremacists.
MB: I think that’s really a really good point to end on, Aaron. I think that that kind of … you kind of left us with a question, I think, which is, you know, obviously, you’re not there to, to kind of deliver the solution on these issues, but to highlight what the issues are in the way that it is approached – the kind of solutions focus lens can sometimes have. And saying: “Okay, it’s for the state to reckon with and to mend”, where actually they may be central to the problem in the first place. So, thank you very much. I suppose before we close, it’s my opportunity to ask you where people can find out more about you and your research in this area?
AW: Yeah, thank you. They can find me and follow me on Twitter @aaronzwinter. My work is also available on a number of platforms like ResearchGate. I publish in a number of journals, like “Identities” and “Ethnic and Racial Studies”. And Google me.
MB: I think that’s the best answer, “Google me”. Wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us today, Aaron.
AS: Thank you Aaron.
AW: Thank you very much for having me.
MB: You’ve been listening to Who Do We Think We Are? Beyond the Headlines – a podcast series produced and presented by Ala Sirriyeh and Michaela Benson. Thanks to Emma Houlton and Andy Proctor at Art of Podcast for production and post production support, and to George Kalivis for our fantastic cover art and much more. If you like what you’ve heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. Check out our show notes for further resources, transcripts and our socials. And you can also find us at whodowethinkweare.org That’s all for now, but we’ll be back with another headline next month.
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