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Excerpted From: Tawia Ansah, Violent Words: Strategies and Legal Impacts of White Supremacist Language, 28 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 305 (Fall, 2021) (151 Footnotes) (Full Document)


TawiaBaidoeAnsahAround the 1890s, during the period known as the Progressive Era, a novel, racially charged concept began to circulate--the idea that the white race was dying out, that it was self-destructing. The name of this idea was “race suicide.” And it held enough sway within social and political discourses that it affected legal policy in several substantive areas: abortion rights, segregation/miscegenation of the races, race and medicine, and immigration. This was also the period of mass migration from Europe. The dictates of “white” identity at the time determined that permissive factors, such factors including liberal immigration policies and racial integration policies at the turn of the century, were diluting the “original” Anglo-Saxon American stock. Against this backdrop, proponents determined that any political or legal tolerance for racial equality or social pluralism was tantamount to racial extermination: “race suicide.”

Historians suggest that a legal consequence of the “race suicide” idea was the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which radically reduced the flow of migrants by limiting immigration from southern and eastern Europe as well as Asia. Another byproduct was Jim Crow, and the disenfranchisement of the freed slave populations. Blacks in America had recently enjoyed a limited franchise under Reconstruction and would continue to struggle against Jim Crow for the rest of the century. “Race suicide” was part of the push-back against Reconstruction, to stop emancipation in its tracks.

There is a through-line from “race suicide” in the 1900s to that of “white genocide” in the 2000s. More recently, “replacement” has come to dominate popular discourses on the political right as the new term to describe the set of concerns that were captured by the prior phrases.

This article is interested in exploring the meaning of these terms within their own historical contexts and the thread that ties them together. This project is important for two reasons: first, because behind the words there is political strategy. We can better understand the thinking and the strategy of white supremacists when we attend carefully to their language. Second, as noted, the strategies of imprecision or deception embedded within the language have often led, sometimes surreptitiously, to the development of laws and policies, as well as to cultural defenses from apologists who may themselves not think that they share the ideology of white supremacy. In short, when we say the terms used by extremists (in this case the far right) are “just words” or “mere propaganda,” we fail to see the work they do in inculcating fear, in shifting important policy debates and, thereby, in potentially creating laws that further the causes of white supremacy.

In Part I, I review the use of the term “race suicide.” In Part II, I examine the more recent term, “white genocide,” asking why it briefly took on such importance within the white supremacist and white nationalist movement(s). In Part III, I review the meaning of the term “replacement” (also referred to as, and in part derived from, the so-called “Great Replacement” theory), whose currency is in the ascendancy.

The article analyses the effects of these terms on the law's development in two areas: immigration law and the laws governing free speech. The article concludes, however, that “replacement” points back to “race suicide” in its true objective: the disenfranchisement of black citizens within the United States. It is through the deployment of specific language, and the ideological weight behind them, that so-called “dog-whistle” politics or technologies achieves their aims. The article attempts, therefore, to register the ways the language of white supremacy enters the mainstream, more obtrusively of late. By remaining vigilant regarding our own tendency to dismiss these terms (“laughing about 'white genocide,”’ for instance), we can observe and counteract the objectives of the language's adherents.

My argument will run as follows: “race suicide” was defended by a cadre of American elites and was well received by a large enough segment of the population that it contributed to the development of stringent laws barring “undesirable” immigrants from the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. “White genocide” was borrowed from white supremacists abroad. This borrowing brought with it problems and challenges from abroad, problems such as postcolonial migration movements from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, and a kind of Islamophobia that was different from the race discourse in the U.S. at the time. The term “white genocide,” once imported, nonetheless operated as a tool of propaganda in the US. Yet, the term remained on the fringes of mainstream discourse, mentioned primarily within the reportage on a spate of mass shootings after 2011. As such, at least in the U.S., although the term had little if any direct impact on law or policy, it bore directly on the meaning of the term “replacement,” which did become more prominent. Finally, as the term “replacement” has been recognized by some as a breed of “hate speech,” it has implicated the scope of protected speech afforded by the First Amendment. Additionally, within the last five years but, arguably, even before then, “replacement” has been intertwined with the turn toward hardline anti-immigrant policies.

[. . .]

Brooks describes himself as a pluralist, and as such, defends the preservation of a good-faith presumption that we can all live together within one community. The alternative, of course, is a serious threat to democracy. But for Brooks, preservation of the presumption requires that we carefully avoid certain linguistic conflations (or, as he calls them, “emotional inflations”), that we excise certain labels as being unhelpful within the larger political sphere and that we learn to live with “the occasional horror [that] fanatics cause.” If one accepts the predicate, then all of that may be unexceptionable. Indeed, this article has attempted to show how the terms deployed within the broader “white power movement,” as Belew reminds us, have different meanings for different factions (European, American, South African, etc.) of the movement. They also mean slightly different things at different times. But the caveat, and the warning, is that a word as seemingly innocuous as “replacement,” a word that may even seem slightly ridiculous when attached to a grand-sounding theory with a fancy name - “The Great Replacement,” is actually more sinister than the “hysterical” term “white genocide,” especially since it performs double work. At least in the American context, it carries its own racial baggage, it is associated primarily with a hardline turn in immigration discourses, and it purports to elide the racist implications attached to its “hysterical and dangerous” cousin even as it embeds an idea of humans as replaceable and disposable.

More fundamentally, “replacement's” real objective returns us to the beginning, to “race suicide” and black disenfranchisement. Carlson's infamous “white replacement” diatribe, for example, was all about the attenuation of his vote--the white vote--by immigrants. But the context of his segment is also key. In the midst of a heated debate regarding voter “reforms” around the country, mainly in Republican strongholds, Carlson's comment drove home for his listeners an additional reason for the (white) voter to fear the takeover and replacement of their franchise unless the enfranchisement of black and brown voters was limited.

In conclusion, I have argued that the three terms are linked and interwoven and that the work of the older, more obviously racist language has been adapted sub rosa by “replacement.” In response to a spate of mass shootings, “white genocide” briefly occupied a dark footnote within mainstream discourse, revealing what an alarmed and threatened populace will think has or might become its imminent reality. It will invert language and, with it, detach itself from rational thought and historical context. In the wake of “white genocide's” elision, the meanings and associations have been carried forward. The same ideas percolate within “replacement,” but the discursive strategies of racist thought make this connection opaque. Pointing this out, as the ADL has recently done in response to Tucker Carlson's provocative use of the term, and calling out “replacement's” racist/white supremacist index, may begin to dismantle its power to create and propel policy by subterfuge.

This article has attempted to examine and to highlight the proximity between words and the violent acts associated with them. It has analyzed the thread that runs between “race suicide” and the ideology of genocide, the logic that connects genocide with settlement/colonialism, and the strategy of denial at the heart of a term like “replacement.” For those who value pluralism, this article is submitted as part of the effort to analyze and expose this logic, and thereby to erode the power of denial, obfuscation and, ultimately, erasure. For that is white supremacy's discursive ground, and its mandate.

Professor of Law, Florida International University College of Law. J.D., University of Toronto Faculty of Law; Ph.D., Columbia University.

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