As the news flooded out of Charlottesville on Saturday and into my newsfeed, I was devastated by the events that were unfolding. Much has been and will continue to be written specifically tackling the evils of white supremacy and the systematic issues that have created flashpoints like the rally in Virginia this weekend. I’m thankful for folks like Jemar Tisby whose piece in the Washington Post was pointed and practical and I look forward to continuing to read and learn about how I can fight white supremacy.
I say all this because my goal isn’t to talk specifically about what happened in Charlottesville or even the political environment that brought it to life, but rather reflect on a subset of reactions to what happened and what I would call “deflective support” of racism and bigotry. As I watched Twitter explode over the news this weekend, I saw this deflective support popping up again and again in response to statements by Christian leaders. It looked something like this:
Christian Leader: White supremacy is evil and Christians must strongly condemn what is happening in Charlottesville.
Christian Twitter User: Sure, but what about reverse racism?
Christian Twitter User: Sure, but why don’t you ever condemn Black Lives Matter?
In rhetorical terms, this is like a hybrid of False Equivalence and a Red Herring. First, it’s assumed that because Black Lives Matter and White Supremacists both rally around ideas of race that they are the same (they’re not) and secondly, it brings up something completely unrelated as a way of distracting from the real issue at hand. But beyond being a poorly constructed argument, this response is dangerous because it ultimately supports white supremacy by attempting to deflect attention away from it.
This is not a new phenomenon and has long been a part of political discourse. When candidate X has some legitimate shortcoming, his supporters may deflect attention to a shortcoming of candidate Y. “Certainly candidate X could be better in this area, but at least he doesn’t have the same problems as candidate Y!” This allows candidate X’s supporters to continue to support him while having the appearance of concern over a particular issue.
For those who don’t understand why deflecting conversations about racism away from white folks is functionally supporting white privilege, it is important to point them to the power dynamics at play. For example, many Christians made a connection between Black Lives Matter and the White Supremacists in Charlottesville. But even within the names of the movements the power dynamics are clear: Black Lives Matter is fighting for equality. The reality is that black and brown people are more likely to be incarcerated and be incarcerated longer than whites committing the same crimes. At its core, Black Lives Matter is seeking equality in the justice system—from cops on the street to sentencing hearings. The movement is about a group that has historically lacked power seeking to have those in power use their authority to level the playing field. White Supremacists, on the other hand, put their power ideas right into their name: they believe that white people are superior and should hold power over other groups. They don’t march or fight for equality, they march and fight to dominate others.
When a conversation is deflected away from white supremacy and toward Black Lives Matter or so-called reverse racism, power dynamics are being ignored. That’s why even if someone says “white supremacy is bad” they are lending support to white supremacy by adding “but so is Black Lives Matter.” Perhaps real conversations need to be had about the methods and message of the Black Lives Matter movement. Maybe there are legitimate concerns about how BLM is going about their mission of fighting for equality. But the time and place to have that conversation is not within a conversation about the evils of white supremacy. Putting the two movements on the same playing field immediately legitimizes the claims of white supremacists in ways that they should never be legitimized. It supports white supremacy by saying “maybe they have something important to say but just aren’t saying it quite right.”
The reality is that there is nothing true or right or important about the message of white supremacy. It is antithetical to the Gospel and the church must meet it with a full throated renouncement. What happened in Charlottesville was not caused by many sides, it was caused by the ignorant and evil views of white people who believe they are better because they are white. Our response shouldn’t be to wonder if this is the same as what happened in Ferguson (it isn’t), it should be to loudly and boldly declare that what happened is wrong and the ideology of white supremacists is evil. Christians must stop our habit of offering deflective support to the evils in this world. No matter our political persuasions, we should never hesitate to stand against injustice and name it for what it is.