I’m a white guy who grew up in rural Kentucky. I’m also an ordained Christian minister. Not many years ago, although more than I’d care to admit, I could have been in the center of that very crowd of students from Covington Catholic High School in Washington, D.C. attending a “march for life” rally.
The incident this past weekend between a group of white Catholic teens, black Hebrew Israelites, and Native American veteran Nathan Phillips has sparked a national debate striking at the heart of our nation’s cultural divide.
In this debate, the fullness of who we are as Americans has been on full display. Few of us like what we see, and to many, the thing they fear most is that something blatantly racist would occur requiring us to shift away from our heritage of white privilege.
It’s impossible to ignore the central role white privilege has played in this conversation. The adults have shirked their responsibility to embrace what happened as an opportunity to learn and discuss our fundamental values as Americans. In this case, they could teach their children about various faith traditions and how our diversity as a nation can be a force that binds us together. Instead, they have allowed themselves to be used by partisan, self-interested politicians.
When a 16-year-old needs his parents to hire a partisan political PR firm, we’ve seriously lost our way. Since the weekend, that firm has done a masterful job confusing the incident and adding nuance to make us forget how simple this case of overt racism really is.
One technique used by the PR firm suggests Nick Sandmann, the high school junior at the heart of the conflict, merely stepped in front of Phillips, in his words, “having every right to do so,” as Phillips attempted to walk through the crowd while beating his drum (used often in Native American prayer).
When I was a boy growing up in a small Kentucky town, my parents taught me that when one of my elders is walking down the sidewalk, I should give them space to pass, no matter how large the sidewalk. Being in the south, my folks told me about the terrible heritage of only stepping aside when the elder passerby was white. Of course, we youngsters had the “right” to not step aside and let elders pass, particularly elders of color, but rights and morality are not one and the same. White privilege is not stepping aside when an elder of color is trying to pass and embracing “stand your ground” language (a reference to Trayvon Martin’s killer) as a defense.
The public square is messy. Amidst that messiness, Covington Catholic High students had plenty of options. White privilege is not knowing when it’s best to walk away from the scene. I don’t blame the kids for not understanding its messiness, but I do blame the chaperones for not preparing them for it. More importantly, I blame the school and the community at-large for tricking these young white men into thinking that it’s okay to be proud of the white nationalism they display in their attitude, hats, and chants.
The parents of these students had plenty of options as well. White privilege is parents ignoring the need for a history lesson concerning the attempted genocide and continuing cultural genocide of tribal communities, or of the contributions of veterans who stand on the side of peace. Instead, within hours a curated statement was issued, and white Republican politicians were lining up to be “on the side” of the kids. Amidst criticism of their sons’ behavior, these parents chose to hire a PR firm to rally support to protect their son’s future. The Sandmanns and their supporters believe their son acted within the norms he was taught, and therefore they must defend his future from those who would find fault in his behavior. We’ve seen this before, in cases such as Brock Turner, who received no prison time after being convicted of sexual assault; Brett Kavanaugh, who became a Supreme Court justice despite credible accusations of sexual assault in his youth; and the Duke lacrosse students, who were accused and acquitted of sexual assault years ago.
Days later, the Today show invited inviting Sandmann to a one-to-one conversation in order to tell his side of the story—an overture not afforded to say the family of Trayvon Martin until a year after his death and apparently not afforded to Nathan Phillips in this case. President Trump is inviting the school to the White House because apparently showing disrespect and racism in 2019 lands you that honor. White privilege, not the necessary education about respect and inclusion, is at work.
It’s natural that the parents’ first reaction was to dig in and protect their children from immediate attacks. But in a culture of white privilege, it smacks of fragility and only leaves the youngsters more vulnerable to the inevitable diminishing of white nationalism and white privilege as the nation becomes increasingly diverse throughout their lives. The first instinct of American media consumers was to embrace pre-existing cultural fault lines, asking not how should we treat kids, religious zealots in the public square, or Native American elders and veterans, but rather who was fundamentally “wrong” and who was “right” based on the racial identity and ideology of the parties involved.
I’m certain that in the days to come more information will be released. Some will be positive and some will prove deeper issues of racism and prejudice from those involved in the incident. In fact, recent reports have already surfaced showing overt racism plaguing the school and students in this same incident doing the “tomahawk chop.”
Sadly, what may be missed in the public discourse is the larger discussion of who we want to be as Americans. That’s not advantageous to the hired PR firm’s strategy and certainly doesn’t serve the politicians lining up to dog-whistle their base.
On the week we celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., will we grow a new generation dedicated to ensuring the protection of systems of partisanship, white privilege and nationalism? Or will we instead learn to follow the drumbeat toward peace, justice, and inclusion?
Our nation was founded on the idea that Native American people are the less important—those not worthy of the very land some of our ancestors took. But through a painful path towards liberty, we were also forged by our diversity, our virtue bonded in the notion that whether they are religious or secular, we respect each others’ views. The Native American, the black Hebrew Israelite, and white Catholic student, when committed to freedom, are all critical for our nation’s success. As Dr. King said, “We may have come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
Will we embrace the side of America that has strived towards religious and racial pluralism, or will we continue to erase the voices of Native people and assume that when racism happens our only option is to take sides and make sure our side wins?