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A member of Congress said Charlotte protesters “hate white people”

He later apologized for offending, but didn’t say his statement was wrong.

Congressman Robert Pittenger attends the Billy Graham’s birthday party on November 7, 2013
Alicia Funderburk/Getty Images

The idea that those who protested in the wake of the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week took to the streets because of their hatred of white people is almost too absurd to dignify with a response.

It’s a nonsensical assertion that could easily be dismissed if it came from a white supremacist Twitter troll. But since it was delivered by a member of Congress, it should probably be addressed.

US Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina said during an interview with BBC News on Thursday that the protesters who demonstrated in Charlotte this week "hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not," the Charlotte News & Observer reported.

Pittenger apologized within hours of his statement, saying, "What is taking place in my hometown right now breaks my heart. My anguish led me to respond to a reporter's question in a way that I regret." His explanation was that he was "quoting statements made by angry protesters last night on national TV" and that what he actually meant to focus on was "the lack of economic mobility for African-Americans because of failed policies." He added, "I apologize to those I offended and hope we can bring peace and calm to Charlotte."

What he didn’t do was to go so far as to say his statement about protesters being motivated by hatred and jealousy of white people was incorrect. In fact, his new allegation that he was quoting protesters seems to suggest that he still believes his theory was based in fact, and that he thinks whatever he heard (or thought he heard) is an accurate reflection of the majority of protesters’ attitudes.

That’s not just unkind or misguided. It’s ludicrous. After all, even the most cursory research into the question of what motivates protesters who take to the streets after an unarmed black person is shot and killed by police — in Charlotte or anywhere else — would reveal the following:

  • The protesters in Charlotte — and those who have demonstrated across the country in recent years — represent a diverse, multiracial group. A glance at the images captured over the past two nights could show that.
Protesters in Charlotte on September 22.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Protesters prepare for a march in Charlotte on September 22.
Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS via Getty Images

It’s fairly safe to say that hatred of white people is not what motivates the white activists who participate.

  • Many protesters have explained clearly what they are upset about, and there’s been no mention of a collective anti-white grudge that randomly erupted. Just yesterday, one young man in Charlotte put it in terms anyone could understand: "Being black is not a crime. Legalize being black. Let us have our freedom. Stop killing our people," he told MSNBC when asked what message he hoped to communicate.
  • Brentley Vinson, the officer who killed Scott, was African American. If these kinds of protests were actually fueled by anti-white (or even anti–white police officer) animus, they wouldn’t have been set off by a death at the hands of a black man in uniform. (Of course, as Vox’s German Lopez has explained, systemic racism can entangle all police officers, regardless of racial identity).

It’s no wonder Pittenger’s colleagues were ashamed of his statement, and were quick to say so publicly.

Public conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement can leave a lot of room for confusion

A comment as ignorant as Pittenger’s is truly shocking coming from an elected official. It’s reasonable to expect that someone in his role would have a better grasp of the details about one of the nation’s most pressing ongoing issues, whose epicenter this week is in his own state.

But unfortunately, it’s not hard to see where thinking like his — that the protesters are motivated by hatred of white people — might come from. The impression that protesters hate white people could easily be a side effect of the way the specifics of demonstrations against systemic racism in policing are often glossed over in the media.

On cable news in particular, hosts and commentators who have discussed similar protests against police violence in recent years have often described them with opaque terms like "racial tensions" or "the racial divide," or implied that there are "two sides" to "the debate" (with black people on one team, and all police officers and people who support them on the other).

In fact, the two sides aren’t defined by racial identity: One includes people who are outraged and saddened by the deep dysfunction that leads to law enforcement violence that takes disproportionately black lives; the other is made up of people who disagree that it’s a problem.

It’s not a huge shocker to find out that Pittenger is apparently in the latter camp. But it’s disappointing that he felt he had to say something as ridiculous as he did to defend his stance.