White Supremacy by Another Name: How Replacement Theory is Fueling Mass Incarceration
There is so much meaning packed into words and phrases. Some intentional and others imagined. Over the years, the NBA’s Prison & Jail Ministries has given its attention to mass incarceration in the United States. For many years, this was an unknown concept. Now, most people have some idea of its meaning. But it is more than just the idea that there are a lot of people in our prisons and jails.
Mass incarceration implies that our corrections system is overloaded disproportionately with people of color. Moreover, the scourge of mass incarceration was something that came about both deliberately and subtly. Its origins date back to the years of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Former southern slave owners were deprived of cheap labor because of the emancipation of Black enslaved people. To bring them back to their plantations, laws were passed that were designed to target freed slaves and imprison them. Then, as part of their punishment, those who were formerly enslaved were parceled out for a small fee to local plantation owners as cheap labor.
This was made possible by the interpretation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which reads:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Words matter. Yes, those who were once enslaved were freed, but there was a significant exception that led to mass incarceration over the years.
Along with the vile practice of wordplay is the concept of the Great Replacement Theory (GRT). This terminology is being tossed around today along with Critical Race Theory (CRT). Those who believe in and support Great Replacement Theory believe that Critical Race Theory is a negative concept where historically marginalized voices, including descendants of slaves, can share their experiences and tell their history without the lens of whiteness. White supremacists, arguably the biggest supporters of GRT, often oppose CRT as it paints a fuller narrative of our country’s past and present.
When unpacked, GRT says that issues such as welcoming immigration policies — particularly those impacting nonwhite immigrants — are part of a plot designed to undermine or ’replace‘ the political power and culture of white people in Western countries. Multiple iterations of this theory have been and continue to be used by anti-immigrant groups, white supremacists, and others.
Understanding the origins of mass incarceration and GRT is not just an academic exercise. These ideas lead to dangerous behavior and actions which take innocent lives and seek to alter policies, laws, and culture.
The GRT conspiracy rhetoric is dangerous and has been around for decades. It can and has led to death and destruction. There is no reason to believe that it won’t continue to create this sort of violence.
One example comes from my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. On August 6, 1855, our ancestors tasted the venom spread by replacement theorists as Protestant mobs attacked neighborhoods in the city occupied by Irish and German Catholics. Twenty-two people died. Many more were affected. Houses were pillaged and burned. Businesses were destroyed. It was election day.
The instigators were members of the Nativist Know-Nothing party, officially known as The American Party. The members of this vile group were radical, anti-immigrant espousers who were afraid of the impact of the new immigrants from Germany and Ireland. Like today’s perverse version of GRT, there was a sentiment that somehow the addition of Irish (Irish immigrants were portrayed in newspapers as ’wild beasts‘) and German immigrants to the Louisville community would displace the predominantly white, Protestant majority and the power they wielded.
This day, August 6, 1855, is known as Bloody Monday and there is a historical marker commemorating it on West Main Street in Louisville. The Know-Nothing Party members wanted to prevent and discourage the new citizens from exercising their right to vote. Such a marker is designed to help us remember the shameful acts that occurred on that fateful election day.
If any of this sounds familiar, it is because there is a growing movement in the United States that resembles the dangerous beliefs of the Know-Nothing party. Restricting and limiting voting rights of people of color—those who also suffer from mass incarceration at disproportionate rates—is just one aspect of this. Building an expensive wall to deter immigration is another. Discriminating against Brown and Black citizens, fearing their growing power, which could displace the predominantly white majority is the foundation of this ill-informed movement.
According to the FBI, violence against people of color is the highest it’s been in 12 years as people are led to believe false conspiracies and fabricated replacement theories. This cannot be ignored or else we will be witnessing Bloody Mondays again and again across the country.
As members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and supporters of the National Benevolent Association, both of which promote caring and compassionate communities, we need to be aware of the history behind these words which have a dark shroud hovering over them. Our church needs to heed the warning, debunk the false theories, and embrace what is great about this country—the contributions of so many from a variety of different countries and places of origin.
The kingdom of God reflects the beautiful diversity of humanity created by a gracious and loving God. May we continue to stand up against those who promote theories and ideas that demean, demonize, and defame others whom they claim are somehow threatening their privilege and power.