I Failed the Covington Catholic Test
On Friday, the March for Life, the Indigenous Peoples March, and a gathering of Black Hebrew Israelites converged near the Lincoln Memorial, where students from Covington Catholic High School encountered Nathan Phillips, an American Indian man. By Saturday, a video of the encounter—an apparent confrontation between the teenagers and Phillips—had gone viral. Soon after, though, more videos surfaced that threw into question the media’s initial portrayal of the high schoolers, many of whom had been wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, as menacing and disrespectful.
“As I watched the longer videos, I began to see the smirking kid in a different light,” Julie Irwin Zimmerman wrote on TheAtlantic.com this week. “If the Covington Catholic incident was a test, it’s one I failed—along with most others. Will we learn from it, or will we continue to roam social media, looking for the next outrage fix? Next time a story like this surfaces, I’ll try to sit it out until more facts have emerged.”
I read with great interest Ms. Zimmerman’s column; however, she saved the most notable point for the second-to-last sentence: “I’ll get my news from legitimate journalists instead of from an online mob for whom Saturday-morning indignation is just another form of entertainment.”
The main sources of misinformation for most were the well-respected and revered-on-the-left New York Times and Washington Post, whose employees are considered the ultimate legitimate journalists.
When the two leading newspapers of record sprint out in front promoting a false narrative, it speaks to an ingrained industry problem and failure. The immediate condemnation of the Covington Catholic children may have been sparked and spread through Twitter, where righteous indignation is always an instant whipsaw, but the august Times and Post, which should be above such standards, swallowed whole the narrative, and ignored the truth.
Any questions on why the mainstream media are today held in such contempt? This needs to be case study No. 1 in journalism schools.
Singer Island, Fla.
After reading this article, I am really hoping that this was a true moment of clarity. Donald Trump supporters are people, too. They should be treated with the respect that we demand from them. We need to stop demonizing every Trump supporter as evil or as “the other.” It’s not healthy for the stability of the country or for our own mental health. We are labeling a whole group as evil and immoral based on nothing but its political affiliation.
Thank you for the honesty, and thank you for starting the process of healing this divided nation.
I agree. If more of your counterparts on both sides shared the same willingness to confess error, be intellectually honest, and strive for more balanced reporting, the world would undoubtedly be a much better place.
San Francisco, Calif.
Your initial reaction to the video of spoiled Catholic schoolboys taunting an elderly Indian musician was the correct one. We don’t need more context to determine if specific instances of lynching were justified any more than we need more context for the descendants of criminals celebrating their ancestors’ crimes. They are both unequivocally immoral. A group of white kids wearing MAGA hats can “protest” whatever rights it doesn’t want women to have whenever and wherever it likes in America, because it’s a free country. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for nonwhite kids; they usually have the cops called on them immediately if they pull a stunt like this, and the media aren’t so quick to apologize for rushing to judgment. When you become an apologist for kids like this, you are teaching them that they are immune from consequences.
Long Beach, Calif.
Julie Zimmerman makes an important point about how many people, even journalists, jumped to conclusions about the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, driven by a penchant for outrage. There were countless mixed messages contained in the edited video clips of Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann, who appeared to be in a standoff. As an American Indian journalist and academic trained to analyze information from all possible angles and come to some kind of understanding of the evidence, I agree that much of the reactionary rhetoric and hateful response to the Covington students was misguided and outright wrong.
However, I do find Zimmerman’s analysis troublingly dismissive. I understand her point that we should be more thorough in examining evidence before being too quick to judge in order to feed our outrage. But I think there are bigger questions to ask that get to the root of why there is so much outrage that is apparently so easily triggered. Who is outraged, and what are they outraged about? What are the different interpretive narratives circulating, and are they raising legitimate concerns, despite the measure of unfairness the students have been handed?
Different people will approach those questions in different ways. From an American Indian perspective, I can say that the confluence of factors involved in the incident is stunningly complex, and arguably not understood by the vast majority of people who viewed the various videos. Sandmann’s statement is incapable of capturing the complexity of the situation, just as Phillips’s cannot tell a larger story. It’s not a matter of the boy’s actions simply being misunderstood and mischaracterized. Nor is it about Phillips inciting a confrontation.
Factor in the Black Hebrew Israelites, American Indians entering the scene singing the American Indian Movement song (a song of resistance, victory, and healing), and an all-boys, predominantly white Catholic-high-school group present to protest a woman’s right to choose, and you have a toxic brew of ingredients backed by hundreds of years of injustice at the hands of white men fueling the conflagration.
The MAGA hats were the visual cue that brought all those things into focus in a way that made anything but a confrontation impossible. And the adult chaperones allowed it all to happen.
Even if Sandmann were not being overtly disrespectful and he was frozen in a situation in which he had no other way to respond than to smile blankly, there was still obvious disrespect in the crowd. There was mocking (tomahawk chops and fake singing); there was cultural appropriation (a faux Maori haka); there was the fact that Phillips was surrounded by the boys in a way that could easily be interpreted as threatening.
And the comment about lands being stolen gets at the very root of the problem. For Zimmerman to dismiss the statement by saying that “the scene was at odds with the reports that Phillips and those with him were attempting to calm a tense situation” is a complete erasure of indigenous concerns. It is irresponsible at best, and at worse an endorsement of the U.S.’s history of colonialism and genocide.
This history is the irreducible core element of this conflict. There is no getting around it, and any analysis that sidesteps it, such as Zimmerman’s, just contributes to the whitewashing of history and upholds the settler colonial system that American Indians such as Phillips are still fighting.
Environmental Justice Education and Policy Planning
Adjunct Faculty, American Indian Studies, California State University at San Marcos
San Clemente, Calif.
While I appreciate the sentiment that it’s difficult to acknowledge complexity in online forums and to draw conclusions from a few seconds of recording, I’m disappointed that the author implies that perhaps shouting that indigenous people were on this land first is inflammatory rhetoric. It’s simply true. Also, the article seems to ask rhetorically how it would be possible for the high-school student to know the intentions of the elder who approached him singing and playing a drum. A more earnest inquiry into that seems more useful. This is Native land. There’s no good reason that young people who are white shouldn’t be educated about the history of the place they live. There’s no good reason that they shouldn’t know that at present, indigenous cultures resiliently exist all around them. Systems have worked forcefully hard to keep this information from mainstream culture and textbooks. There are so many directions in which this inquiry could go. One simple inquiry would be to look inward at the history of the Church-operated boarding schools that forcibly separated families and deprived Indian students of their language. If you don’t have context for an interaction with Native music and Native culture, it’s worth thinking about why. It’s worth thinking about how to gain more knowledge, instead of simply dismissing the possibility.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful words on the debacle that occurred with Covington Catholic over the weekend. Like others, I went through the same roller coaster of emotions—shock, rage, confusion, and finally shame. I have been extremely disappointed with how the mainstream media have covered it. Firstly, by encouraging the sensationalism and outrage; and secondly, by not following up and correcting their mistakes. This is honestly the first article I’ve seen that takes a step back and acknowledges not only the situation but everything that went wrong in our response to it. I really admired the humility and honesty of this article and its clear-eyed approach.
It is my hope that the young men, and those defending them, listen deeply to the outrage. That they try to understand the outrage. That they they try to grow from the outrage. For this to occur, we need to stop defending racist actions. We need to acknowledge our privilege and question ourselves when we start to rationalize racism and/or distort the circumstances in which racism occurred. These students behaved in an ignorant and abhorrently racist fashion. They need to recognize that. We need to recognize that. And we all need to take responsibility for their actions by igniting our outrage into action: educating one another. Halting racism when we encounter it. And involving ourselves in community organizations that target systemic discrimination.
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Social media can never be the basis for any judgment about anything. There are bots all over it, and unhindered room for many others to stoke as much conflict and rage as possible. However, while these situations are almost always more complicated than a video clip represents, I think the author gives too much credit to the high-school students. And where were the school chaperones who should have intervened early on to avoid just this type of confrontation?
Ms. Zimmerman, I can’t express how disappointed I am that the lesson you seem to have taken from the Covington Catholic video is that we should all put down our phones so that we can more fully ignore the racism we continue to excuse in ourselves and in our children.
Is the story more nuanced than a headline? Of course. Did our personal biases impact how different viewers responded to that video? Certainly. But I don’t agree that the reason so many people, myself included, had such a visceral reaction to it is because we’re part of “an online mob for whom Saturday-morning indignation is just another form of entertainment.” I am white, and a product of a Catholic all-girls private school, and I like to think of myself as a good person. I think many white people responded to that video with a sense of horror because it gave racism and white privilege a face just like ours.
We pat ourselves on the back for tossing around the language of institutional and systemic racism, shaking our heads at documentaries, and displaying Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work on coffee tables, but we don’t want to talk about our part in it. And we don’t want to see the racism we will not uproot in ourselves smirking back at us on the faces of our children.
We should be primed for outrage against racism. That outrage should be consequential. So choose not to put down your phone. Pick it up, and call your child’s school. Ask about its history curriculum. Pick up your phone and ask how it will teach empathy and anti-racism. Pick up your phone and ask about how it encourages educators of color in its hiring process and integration in its classrooms. Pick up your phone, call your friends, and talk about race. Pick up your phone and research the books and tools that will help you begin and continue the work of unpacking your own entrenched understandings about race. Pick up your phone and follow the activists of color who are leading the charge. Do something. Don’t promise yourself that next time you’ll sit back and wait until all of the defensive excuses have been made to give us another exit from accountability.
I appreciate the honesty of the author and the opportunity afforded readers to gauge their inherent responses to headlines. In this case, I was pleased that I actually passed the “Covington Catholic test.” Two years into a divisive, truth-eluding government administration, I have learned not to react to headlines and to either do the hard work of investigation or ignore. I have learned to get news from sources that strive for balance. In the case of the “smirking” MAGA teenager, I found a National Review article in my Twitter feed that helped shine a light on more than one angle to the story.
New York, N.Y.
Julie Irwin Zimmerman replies:
I do believe that some outlets responded too quickly, but they were struggling to keep up with the intense interest this story had generated on social media—and on a Saturday, when newsrooms are minimally staffed. I saw a headline from my local paper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, that referred to “an apparent incident,” and readers were scolding it for the use of the word apparent. Journalists should exercise more caution, certainly, but they were not driving this story. It took off long before the reporters showed up.
I agree with Ronald Ringler that nonwhite kids are almost always treated more poorly than white kids. I think the answer is to treat nonwhite kids better, not to treat their white counterparts as badly as we treat them. I’m also appalled that he would compare the actions in that video to lynchings.
I agree with Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s analysis. The situation was incredibly complex, both what was taking place in the moment and the historical context in which it unfolded. Reacting to it Sunday night, I did not have all of the information I needed to tease out the causes and context of the scene; I believe it would take weeks or months to collect the accounts of everyone involved and determine how and why what happened happened. I did know enough, however, to believe that the automatic reaction many people had to it was wrong, and I thought it contributed to the discussion to say so.
To Cole Lewis’s point: No question that the boys who did the tomahawk chop and chanted were being racist, obnoxious, and culturally insensitive. I don’t and can’t defend their actions.
All of Siobhan Corrigan’s suggestions are things I would consider productive. What isn’t productive is spending hours on a screen reading different accounts of a story involving private citizens. My aim was to point out that the version of the story that provoked such outrage was not true, and many people accepted it as true. I’d also suggest, as Conor Friedersdorf did so eloquently this week, that there are plenty of true emergencies—such as family separations, opioid deaths, rollbacks of environmental protections, climate change—that demand immediate attention and action. A smirking teenager who is not my own, and who does not appear to be guilty of any of the accusations initially leveled at him, is far down on my priority list right now.
In terms of what Renee Reynolds wrote, what was interesting to me was how quiet conservative Twitter was on Saturday. I believe that everyone believed this story was true because the original clip was so convincing and so damaging. So good for you for waiting on this one.