Race in America: The Covington Affair and American Reactions

By Hank Millstein, Content Manager.

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

An incident involving white students from a Catholic high school in Kentucky, members of a small African-American sect, and Native Americans has blown up into a full-fledged uproar that opens a window into the state of race relations in the US. As an organization committed to building intercultural understanding and harmony, ING can’t help but be concerned not only by the incident itself but also by the viral reaction to it that has swept the country.

Washington D.C. on Friday, January 18, was the scene of two marches: one, the March for Life, an annual anti-abortion rally heavily supported by Catholics and evangelical Protestants; and the other, the Indigenous Peoples’ March, designed to draw attention to historical and current injustices against Native Americans. Marchers from both events wound up in the vicinity of the Lincoln Memorial.

A series of videos emerged from these events that went viral and stimulated fierce and diverse public reactions. The first to come out, only a minute long, showed a smiling young man, Nick Sandmann, from a Catholic high school in Covington, Kentucky, standing and staring at Nathan Phillips, an elderly Native American drumming and singing; he was surrounded by schoolmates who had come to attend the March for Life; the Native American, Nathan Phillips, who had a number of other Native Americans following him, had come for the Indigenous People’s March. Sandmann and several of his classmates were sporting red MAGA hats, emblems of support for the Trump Administration and its agenda, and in the background one could see many of the students laughing, dancing, and gesturing to the beat of the drum. The video prompted a firestorm; many celebrities, including Joe Scarborough, Alyssa Milano, and Howard Dean, as well as many lesser-known folk, tweeted their outrage at what they saw as the students’ disrespectful and racist behavior.  Media outlets, including NPR and Reuters, initially characterized the students’ actions in the same terms, and Sandmann’s school and the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, issued an apology for the students’ behavior. The chairman of the Yakama Nation in the state of Washington published a strong statement condemning the students’ conduct and connecting it with the “teachings of domination, dehumanization, social injustice, racism, and violations of basic and fundamental human rights” inherent in the Doctrine of Discovery that served as a pretext for European and American seizure of Native lands.

A longer video subsequently emerged, showing the events that preceded what appeared in the shorter video. A small group (no more than five) of African-American self-proclaimed “Israelites” (a tiny fundamentalist sect) were seen haranguing the Native American marchers, condemning them for allegedly worshipping eagles, buffalo, and other animals in place of the one true God (an appalling misrepresentation of Native American religion) and claiming that it was because of their supposed idolatry that they had lost their land. The video also showed the “Israelites” haranguing and harassing the Covington students, leading to a growing confrontation.

Nick Sandmann’s family hired a PR firm that arranged for a widely viewed interview between Sandmann and Today show anchor Savannah Guthrie, in which Sandmann claimed that the students were responding to “Israelites” with school fight songs, that Phillips came into his “personal space,” that he believed he was defusing a confrontation by standing in front of the drummer, and that none of his fellow students were racists. The Today show also interviewed Nathan Phillips, who claimed he had moved toward the students in order to defuse the growing confrontation between them and the “Israelites.”

With the appearance of the longer video and of the interview with Sandmann, the media narrative turned around. Major media outlets, including the New York TimesCNN, and the Washington Examiner, ran pieces essentially retracting their earlier critical coverage of the Covington students; the Atlantic published an article alleging that the media, in its eagerness to condemn apparently racist behavior, had “botched” the story and would suffer lasting damage to their credibility. The Catholic bishop who had earlier criticized the students now apologized to them, and the earlier statement disappeared from the Kentucky Catholic Conference website.  He did, however, publish an op-ed declaring that MAGA hats, indicating support for what he saw as President Trump’s racist and anti-immigrant agenda, had no place at an event dedicating to the protection of human life and that the Church’s opposition to abortion could not be separated from its rejection of racism and support of immigrants and refugees.

In general, the public discourse about the incident now saw the students not as perpetrators of racist injustice but rather as victims of overzealous journalists. Nonetheless, a few commentators, , including Joseph Gerth of the Louisville Courier Journal and Laura Wagner of The Concourse, insisted that the initial perception of the youths’ behavior as offensive and racist was correct and that nothing in the longer video or in the interviews about the incident invalidated that initial judgement. Presbyterian minister Marcia Mount Shoop, a long-time activist and counselor in racial reconciliation, has characterized the turn in public discourse about the affair as an example of “white fragility,” the reluctance of white Americans to acknowledge and take responsibility for the privilege they continue to enjoy at the expense of people of color. And I can say with some confidence, from many years’ experience living and working with Native Americans, that they would almost certainly regard the actions of the Covington students offensive regardless of what may have led up to them.

What is striking about this story is precisely the divide in how this incident is seen. People looking at the same video footage are able to come to radically different conclusions concerning its meaning and implications. They are likewise affected in very different ways by additional information, whether in the form of additional video footage or of interviews with protagonists. In particular, many of us have far to go in understanding what will strike a person of color as hurtful or offensive; I suspect that my own reaction to this situation might be different were it not for my long experience with Native Americans that I just mentioned. Genuine racial equality and reconciliation can come only if we can bridge the divides in perception that build greater walls between us than anything that can be constructed with concrete.

How do we build down those walls? By education, encounter, and engagement. We need to learn about and get to know one another, not just to increase our store of information but to encounter one another as human beings, and we need to engage with one another in taking down the mental, emotional, and social divides that separate us. And, though it may be difficult for white people like myself to hear this, we, as white Americans, need to strive to lay aside our “white fragility” and take a hard look at how our racial identity grants us certain privileges not available to those of other identities. That move can free us to see situations like that around the Covington students with the eyes of those who have been and are the targets of racism. The object of this is not to burden ourselves with guilt over the reality of racial hierarchies—which we of course did not create–but to empower us to join with people of color to dismantle them.

Education, encounter, and engagement are precisely the work of ING through our Speakers’ Bureaus and other programs. And it is because of the ongoing racial divide in perceptions that the Covington incident reveals that ING is now working to establish an Intercultural Speakers’ Bureau that will educate and engage diverse Americans across lines of race and culture much as our existing Speakers’ Bureaus have educated and engaged people across lines of religion and culture. It is efforts such as this that can build down the walls between us and pave the way for genuine equality and healing.