Focussing on small details of the incident, we risk missing the obvious conclusions from it and avoiding the most difficult questions it poses. It is not, in my opinion, hugely important who approached first, or what other third parties said or did prior to the incident. I would even argue it is not particularly important what Sandmann’s much-discussed smile meant.
The Covington controversy ultimately has two questions at the heart of it.
1. Did the Covington students mock Nathan Phillips, an elderly Native American man?
2. And if they did, was that mockery racist?
The reaction to those question tells us a lot about who holds power in modern America. I would argue they tell a story about the country that is crucially connected, through its history of colonisation, slavery, and segregation, to race.
It is significant that Phillips is part of a group who have been historically disrespected, marginalised and mistreated in the US, despite being the indigenous people of America. It is also significant than that Sandmann and other Covington students were wearing the hat of a president who has frequently disrespected Native American culture, as recently as this month – when he made light of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Phillips’ ethnicity was not lost on the students either, as shown by those who were filmed doing the caricatured “tomahawk chop” and making jeering war whoops.
When the shorter original video emerged, the incident was widely-denounced as an act of white aggression that was symbolic of how ethnic minorities are disrespected in Trump’s America. Then, when further footage complicated the narrative, showing Phillips approaching the boys first and a third group hurling abuse, some media outlets reversed their condemnation and framed the incident as a “both sides” issue. Yet, initial interpretations of the video were not inaccurate at their core.
It is perfectly reasonable to argue that the Covington students, if not Sandmann explicitly, were mocking Phillips and behaving insensitively. Similarly, to argue, as some have, that a group of boys wearing “Make America Great Again” hats are the epitome of innocent students is willfully naïve. The symbolism of that hat, which supports an ideology that has been embraced by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan with minimal pushback from the president, is racially insensitive on its own.
By itself, wearing the MAGA hat in public space, especially around indigenous people, is an act of white aggression because of the campaign it explicitly represents. It is a reminder to minority groups of how white people can act insensitively against minorities with impunity, as Trump did throughout 2016. In short, it is a racist symbol. And if that sounds like a radical statement, or even an intolerant one, that is only a result of how forcefully Trump has shifted public perception of respectability in his favour.
The very election of Trump in 2016; a man who was both unqualified for the position and ran a campaign based on aggressively xenophobic messaging, non-sensical policies and outright lies, was an act of racial aggression. It showed white voters, who were a key demographic for Trump’s victory, were at best unconcerned by the way he baited anger towards Muslims or Mexicans, or at worst actively chose to support it. It was a reminder that white people, despite the fear-mongering of the right-wing, still hold the balance of power in the US.
In the wake of that election, there was much soul searching among the liberal media about how we should talk about race in relation to Trump in a suitably forceful way. Most people on the left and right are good at denouncing racism when it is clear and undeniable, but as soon as an issue becomes ambiguous, interpretations become frustratingly soft. Yet, these are the moments of racial prejudice that are most relevant and prevalent in everyday life.
Racism does not begin and end with the Ku Klux Klan; if it did, segregation would have not survived for so long. And we should be able to make distinctions between the sort of racism that inspires someone to actively attack ethnic minorities and less clear-cut examples of prejudice in public life.
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was recently asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper if Trump was a racist, she replied that he was. Her interviewer’s response was a quizzical look and a further question, “How can you say that?” You could argue this was simply Cooper doing his journalistic duty, asking her to clarify her answer, but the question has come up too many times during Trump’s presidency for it to feel so innocent. It should no longer require clarification.
There is a long list of examples we could use as evidence of Trump’s racism but here a few of them. We can say Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, a sheriff who the Department of Justice concluded committed “extreme racial profiling and sadistic punishments” on Latino inmates. Or we can say he ordered the US border to be closed to Syrian refugees fleeing civil war and citizens of other Muslim-majority countries on the argument that because a tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists, all Muslims are a danger to the US. Or we can say he promoted a “both sides” moral equivalency between white supremacists and anti-racism protesters at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally.
Of course, many have tried to justify these examples with explanations other than Trump’s racism, but we cannot suggest all these examples, and many others, have innocent explanations. Trump may misspeak at times but to argue he has always misspoken is frankly ridiculous. It should not be controversial to say Donald Trump is a racist, even though he is not an outright white supremacist or Klan member, because he offers the evidence blatantly for the world to see.
In response to this, we should return to the question of whether the Covington boys behaved in a racist way? While we cannot say what they feel in their hearts, we can say many of them chose to wear a hat endorsing a racist president (racist because of the racist statements he has made and racist policies he has pursued). And we can also reasonably say they acted disrespectfully towards Phillips in a way that was related to his ethnicity. By normal standards that should be enough.
That does not mean these boys are monsters or they are beyond redemption. Nor does it mean they deserve death threats or intimidation. Unequivocally, they do not deserve that treatment. But the question we should be asking is not whether the Covington students were racist. Instead, we should be asking why these boys, and many others, wanted to where the MAGA hat. Why they believed it was acceptable to mock an elderly Native American man. And why so many people have been so desperate to defend them.
The Covington incident went viral because it was an ambiguous case. As some have noted, Sandmann’s face is a Rorschach test for racism – you can take whatever you want to see from it. But some facts are less debatable. A group of Covington students did wear the MAGA hat and some chose to disrespect Phillips in a manner that was related to his race.
You might look at those charges and think “So what?” The boys did not shout explicit racial slurs or endorse white supremacy. But that does not mean what they did was not racist. More importantly, that is why the video was potentially an opportunity to talk about an uncomfortable truth with racism; that many more people are racist than we generally accept.
That does not mean there are millions of potential white supremacists waiting for an opportunity to strike. But it does mean in the simplest sense of what racism is, there are more people who harbour prejudices based on race or have been brought up socially to believe in the superiority of their race than we would like to admit. And until we accept that, we cannot seriously hope to root out racism.
The details of the viral video are contentious and complex, but at its heart, the story is very simple. It does not matter what Sandmann’s smile meant, or whether Phillips approached first, or what unpleasant abuse was shouted by the group of African-Americans. That hat, which is a racist hat, promoting a racist ideology, was enough, and Sandmann got away with wearing it because he is white. Likewise, when Trump prepares his campaign for 2020 with yet more falsehoods about immigration or Muslims, we should not need to argue about the subtext of what he means, because the text itself is damning enough. The Covington video was a small test of how ready America is to have a serious conversation about racism. Based on the response, it is still in denial.