Editor’s note: this piece first appeared on the RLC blog on May 16, 2022.
On Saturday, May 14, 2022 a young man entered a grocery store in predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York and opened fire.
By the time he surrendered a short time later, he had shot a total of 13 people, most of them Black, and left 10 of them dead. They were senior citizens, retired law enforcement, churchgoers, grandparents, brothers, and sisters.
Prior to the crime, the shooter wrote a 180-page manifesto and posted it online. He left no doubt that he intended to target Black people and that his murderous act was a hate crime. He even painted the word n***er on the assault rifle he used.
Commentators rightly identified this perpetrator as a white supremacist. He wrote in his manifesto about the “great replacement” theory—”the false idea that a cabal is attempting to replace white Americans with nonwhite people through immigration, interracial marriage and, eventually, violence.”
But heed this word of caution as the phrase “white supremacist” becomes the topic of national conversation once again.
To identify someone who targets, plans, and homicidally attacks Black people and other religious and ethnic groups as a white supremacist, while accurate, can obscure the ways many others are complicit with white supremacy.
In my first book, The Color of Compromise, I spoke of the “complicity” of white Christians in the racism that has plagued the United States for centuries.
It is convenient to point to slave traders, plantation owners, and Klan members as the “real racists.” We tend to think that only the most severe examples of prejudice constitute racism. But even if only a small number of people actually commit acts of violence in the name of racism, the ideas that lead to such acts are often co-signed by the masses.
As I wrote in the book,
“The most egregious acts of racism…occur within a context of compromise. The failure of many Christians in the South and across the nation to decisively oppose the racism in their families, communities, and even in their own churches provided fertile soil for the seeds of hatred to grow.”
What was true in the past is true in the present—the most horrific violence done in the name of white supremacy happens within a context of compromise and complicity.
Major news media outlets such as Fox News have favorably cited the great replacement theory on their programs. Right-wing activists are waging a crusade against what they label “Critical Race Theory” in an effort to prevent education about racism and white supremacy. Many churches and Christian institutions are actively suppressing efforts to promote racial progress in the name of opposing CRT and promoting “the gospel.”
If we look at shooters like the one in Buffalo as the only type of people to whom the phrase “white supremacist” applies, then we miss all the daily and common ways that countless others endorse the same ideas that undergirded his murderous actions.
Passivity in the face of white supremacist diatribes—whether on social media, in person, or even in the pulpit—permits the spread of these evil ideas.
Tuning in to podcasters, YouTubers, pastors, pundits and others who play on racist fears to get clicks and build a platform allows white supremacy to remain an influential narrative in this land.
We can look in horror at the actions of a white supremacist terrorist in Buffalo. But he is simply the extreme version and the logical end of what many other people believe and support in other ways.
You don’t have to pull the trigger on an assault rifle to support white supremacy. All you have to do is nothing at all.
As I put it in The Color of Compromise…
“The refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression.”
This article originally appeared in Footnotes by Jemar Tisby.