Equating normal people with the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville, Va., chanting slogans such as "Jews will not replace us," is insulting and wrong, but it's a temptation some people just can't resist.
Last week, we wrote about the Southern Poverty Law Center lumping in pro-family groups with neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan on its list of hate organizations. Over the weekend, former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., claimed the GOP's policies on immigration and law enforcement were masked efforts to advance the cause of white supremacy. On Wednesday, the ACLU apologized for inadvertently promoting white supremacy after progressives criticized the nonprofit for tweeting a photo of a white baby captioned, "This is the future that ACLU members want."
A recent report by CNN Enterprise writer/producer John Blake is making a similar argument, contending "ordinary people" are really "white supremacists by default." Don't believe me? The story is actually headlined: "'White supremacists by default': How ordinary people made Charlottesville possible."
Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the article:
... the tragedy that took place in Charlottesville this month could not have occurred without the tacit acceptance of millions of ordinary, law-abiding Americans who helped create such a racially explosive climate, some activists, historians and victims of extremism say.
It's easy to focus on the angry white men in paramilitary gear who looked like they were mobilizing for a race war in the Virginia college town. But it's the ordinary people -- the voters who elected a reality TV star with a record of making racially insensitive comments, the people who move out of the neighborhood when people of color move in, the family members who ignore a relative's anti-Semitism -- who give these type of men room to operate, they say.
Though author Blake attributes these arguments to quotes from experts in the article, he embraces them openly at the conclusion, writing, "If you want to know why those white racists now feel so emboldened, it may help to look at all the ordinary people around you, your neighbors, your family members, your leaders."
There is absolutely something to be said for family and friends of white nationalists who, for instance, did not speak up to stop their loved ones from radicalizing or demonstrating. But lines such as, "Many of the white racists who marched in Charlottesville were condemned because they openly said they don't believe in integration or racial equality. But millions of ordinary white Americans have been sending that message to black and brown people for at least a half a century," are profoundly unfair.
Direct parallels between racists who legitimately believe white people are genetically superior and "ordinary white Americans" are not productive. Certainly, "millions of ordinary white Americans" may have made hurtful mistakes over the past half a century, and there's much room for improvement, but comparing them to people marching in the streets with the KKK and neo-Nazis won't help at all.
Asking people to be more conscious of their decisions and more aware of their actions is one thing, this argument is another.
The vast majority of people in this country believe fundamentally in racial equality. Thank God for that. Progress hasn't come easily and there is no question that we can do better.
But telling "ordinary people" who voted for Donald Trump or said "All lives matter" that they are responsible for the repugnant display of white supremacy that played out in Charlottesville is not accurate and it's not fair. Those racists exist on the fringes of our society for a reason — because "ordinary people" have pushed them there.
Emily Jashinsky is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.