Divided by the Drumbeat: America's Partisan Race Problem

Matthew J. Koehler
Jan 29, 2019 · 8 min read
Courtesy of Google

The nation had its own standoff in the hours and days following the standoff between the Covington Catholic High School boys and Nathan Phillips, then forgot about it as the shutdown ended. I weighed in early and got it wrong. You, me, and everyone that joined the pileup early got it wrong. Both sides, however, are still getting it wrong as partisan interpretation continues to parse the story more and more for their respective readers.

Those young men (or are they boys because they’re white?) weren’t entirely the racist mob they appeared to be, but they were somewhat racist. Still, the media frenzy misrepresented the students and sparked a furor that had minors doxxed and threatened — both unforgivable sins.

The post-analysis from the right, about how we should view these young men, or boys, as completely innocent victims (hereafter referred to as students), was mostly right but completely misses why the left was legitimately angry at what it saw.

Both sides, however, are still getting it wrong as partisan interpretation continues to parse the story more and more for their respective readers.

Like many on the left, I thought I knew what I was looking at. The editing reduced the ambiguity to absolute zero. The plethora of MAGA hats conjured every ugly thing the president has said and done over the last few years. The laughing and jeering white faces, the tomahawk chops and mock war cries (again from white students), drove the point home for the left.

Over the course of the weekend, more video emerged of one student who dismissively shrugged his shoulders at native lands being stolen and another student who dismissed the idea that we’re on stolen lands (to fact check: we are — that’s just history).

Then came more spurious evidence of black face and the white power signs.

By Sunday evening, what more needed to be seen? What other evidence would exonerate these privileged, white, MAGA hat wearing teenagers, who surrounded and mocked a small group of Native American protestors?

With every story, though, as with this one, there is always more context that can be added in support of or against your airtight case.

Liberals saw the hypocrisy in how the Right evaluates minority children differently from white children

What liberals saw, and likely what Nathan Phillips saw and felt, was an oppressed minority, his, being surrounded by hostile white faces. The image is striking because our history is filled with images of an angry, laughing, and indifferent white hegemony surrounding an oppressed minority.

While many on the right are correct to point out how things have changed, they often falsely claim that widespread systemic racism is a thing of the past. A foray into “The New Jim Crow”, “Rise of the Warrior Cop”, and Nikole Hannah-Jones could easily disavow you of the myth that racism is solely a creature of American history (“The Color of Law” covers the legacy of racial redlining in depth).

America exceeds at glossing over its history with Native Americans, too. It continues to ignore them, marginalize them — trying to forget them. The president, himself, does not have a good history with the tribes and his cultural insensitivity, if not hostility, has followed him into high office.

Although wrong, the Covington Students’ faces and behavior called to mind, not only this history, but current events as well.

While many on the right are correct to point out how things have changed, they often falsely claim that widespread systemic racism is a thing of the past.

People who fight for social justice, who understand why players kneel and are angry at the right’s silence on black and brown minors being disproportionately killed, locked up, or abused by the State, were predictably and rightfully triggered.

They were triggered because it wasn’t that long ago that police and security forces forcibly removed Native Americans protestors, who were trying to protect their lands from environmental destruction, from the Keystone XL pipeline construction site. There was more anger on the right in support of Dwight and Steven Hammond than for those at Standing Rock.

When seeing those white faces surrounding Phillips, liberals undoubtedly thought of all this and more.

They thought of the black minor who was flipped out of her desk by a white cop in South Carolina. They saw Tamir Rice getting gunned down by white cop in Cleveland — he was 12. They saw Trayvon Martin being followed, provoked, shot and killed by a white assailant who then went free. We saw those black boys being handcuffed on the National Mall for selling water. Laquan McDonald. This 15 year old girl. This little boy. The list goes on in ways that our national history still isn’t accounting for, and won’t, until we can all agree that it is still happening.

Black and brown people, who continue to be dismissed by one political party, and systematically treated unfairly by a government comprised of both, likely felt that interaction more than white people ever could.

I don’t list all this as an exercise in “whataboutism”, but to drive the point home. We still have a problem with race even though it’s not egregious as it used to. Minorities are treated differently than everyone else (especially poor minorities). The abuse isn’t as obvious as segregation and lynchings, but it’s still there.

We have a system in place that disproportionately abuses the rights of minority citizens and one major political party that has turned a blind eye to it.

People on the left can’t divorce how damning the Phillips and Sandmann’s interaction looks from the fact that it is damning.

We white Americans typically want to look at other white faces and seek out excuses for bad or questionable behavior when those excuses aren’t afforded to black and brown boys and girls, men and women. If they are, it’s too late and often cynically caveated with irrelevant attempts at character assassination.

The face between Phillips and Sandmann is called a Rorschach Test, and it is

People on the left can’t divorce how damning the Phillips' and Sandmann’s interaction looks from the fact that it is damning. That’s what the left continues to see watching the 2–3 minutes that was widely distributed before more video came out. The outrage doesn't excuse the unmitigated hate flung at those kids.The worst part of it, though, is that many people felt justified in doxxing and threatening those kids.

However, I’d seek some common ground with those of you who looked at the extended footage and said that it's nowhere near as damning as it initially looked. You’re right, it’s not and the entire interaction was grossly misinterpreted without the wider context. In fact, there shouldn’t have been a story about it but the media followed its mantra, and this story bled a lot.

There was a lot of background chanting and yelling that looks and sounds bad until you realize that a significant contingent of students were responding to slurs from the Black Hebrew Israelites. Their school chants then change seamlessly with Phillips drumming. They are high school boys and didn’t know how to respond. Probably thought the drumming was for their benefit somehow, like someone wanted to add a beat to their chanting. They can be forgiven for this—we’re all egocentric and narcissistic at that age.

Many were clearly confused as to what was going on — a lot of people were. I’ve been to protests, from big ones to smaller ones that then morph into out of control bigger ones. Things change rapidly and peaceful protests can turn violent or just ugly.

How you interpret his face depends largely on the lens through which you view politics and culture.

Sandmann’s alleged smirking takes on new meaning, though, given the wider context of the whole interaction. I won’t claim to know what was in his head, or even if his publicly released statement and interview are accurate or just highly coached, but I know what I would’ve done in that situation at his age. I would’ve panicked. To this effect, his sneer seems less angry white MAGAt and more painfully awkward teenager. He probably didn’t know what else to do. Again, all that peer pressure.

How you interpret his face depends largely on the lens through which you view politics and culture. Perhaps he felt challenged by this old brown-skinned man and maliciously held his ground against him, a symbolic colonial conqueror vs the native.

But more likely he was just frozen in place. A 16 year old in DC for the first time and dealing with emotional and social forces beyond his control and life experience.

There is a point in the video where Sandmann appears to get visibly uncomfortable.

And, the part where he tells his friend to stop arguing with one of the activists. I can’t help but see a measured teenager, here.

Maybe he realized something bigger was happening — something he had no control over. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt there, too.

Bridging the impossible divide

After a long week of analysis and slinging partisan rhetoric, what can we say as viewers? As a nation divided? What will our deeply ingrained political ideologies allow us to say about it?

Center-right people will likely look at this whole fiasco and see a group of innocent teenage boys, provoked by the Black Hebrew Israelites (that is their M.O.). After which, they get locked into some bizarre protest face off that goes viral. Simple point of fact, they were wrongly accused by the left-leaning media who then viciously attacked them.

Through a different lens, even if the longer video footage tempered your hottest anger, you still see a confrontation between privileged young white men, mimicking war cries and chops, ignorant of history, of protests, of themselves, surrounding small group of Native American Protesters, and mocking them.

Just as the right won’t be disavowed of how this was a typical left wing hit job on good young American men, or boys, the left won’t be disavowed of the look of bias. Because the look is there.

Where exactly is the path through this mess? The path, I suppose, is somewhere between what you’re willing to concede about the opposing side’s narrative and what you won't.

After a week of contemplating the whole incident, here’s mine:

A radical activist group, widely known by most people in DC and typically dismissed, provoked a bunch of young ignorant kids from Kentucky. That escalated because the students (I guess we can call them boys) didn’t know the best tactic for dealing with it: silence. But their response wasn’t all that unusual or incriminating.

Their chaperone should have known better. Should’ve told them to walk away. Should’ve intervened during Phillips’s and Sandmann’s face off.

Nathan Phillips strode into the midst of this, allegedly as a peace-maker. He did make the first move in approaching the students. The students, at first, had no idea what was going on. Sandmann got singled out — maybe it was fate.

What followed was a Native American man drumming in the face of a white high school student. Drumming for peace. Drumming for his ancestors. Drumming as a testament to the continued struggles of indigenous people in a country that has tried to bury their history and still disregards them. Drumming in the face of an awkward teen, who didn’t consider any of this. The two locked into orbit, while his peers did what ignorant (privileged) teenagers do. For an instant, forces beyond their control transformed them into symbols of an old struggle. Then the kids got called to their buses.

This was outside one the nation’s most memorable monuments, in 2019—the social media age. The rest, they say, is history.

Matthew J. Koehler

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Stories. Verse. Humor. Most of this is true. Bylines around the Web. Editor of a small publication in the District. For parenting woes: www.thewinetimedad.com

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