Covington Catholic

If You Still Think Nick Sandmann's Smile Is Proof of Racism, You're Seeing What You Want to See

Some are incapable of viewing the MAGA-hat-wearing teens from Covington Catholic as anything other than pure evil.


Screenshot via Kaya Taitano / Youtube

In the nearly two hours of video footage that greatly elucidate what happened between a group of boys from Covington Catholic High School and Native American veteran Nathan Phillips, there are many moments that turn the media's initial, false narrative—racist teens harass well-meaning elderly man—on its head. Here is one of them.

This video shows the confrontation between Phillips and teenager Nick Sandmann—accused of harboring racist intentions, as evidenced by his unfailing smile—from a different angle. One of Phillips' associates, another Native American man, is standing near Sandmann, and enters an argument with a different MAGA-hat-wearing teenager (start watching at 6:55). The Native American man says, "Go back to Europe where you came from. This is not your land, you have been here two, three generations compared to us. We've been here a million fucking years." The MAGA teen responds, "That's not true. Let's go all the way back to Africa," and proceeds to tell the story of the land bridge that once connected Asia to North America, which allowed humans to settle these lands some thousands of years ago. (His opponent counters that this a "bullshit theory.")

Keep in mind, the teen saying that all human beings originally came from Africa is a member of the group of young people initially described by countless pundits as obviously, undeniably racist.

But the next moment is what really matters: Sandmann takes notice of the argument and quietly signals to the other teenager. It's very quick and easy to miss: He makes a cut it out gesture.

Surely if Sandmann's objective had been to harass the Native Americans and sow racial discord, he would not have attempted to defuse the situation. In fact, this gesture supports the claim he made in his official statement that he "motioned to my classmate and tried to get him to stop engaging with the protestor, as I was still in the mindset that we needed to calm down tensions."

That's just one moment from the video footage. There are others. There's the moment when the Black Hebrew Israelites, a black nationalist cult, tells one of the few black teens that his friends are going to kill him and steal his organs, and a young white man turns to his classmate, touches him affectionately, and says, "But we love you!" There's the moment when the black nationalists declare that "your president is a homosexual" and a high school kid responds, "Who cares?" There's the moment when some of the teens begin to suspect that Phillips has not waded into their midst with the best of intentions (he would later assert to media reporters that the teens were "beasts" and the cult members "their prey," a false and possibly willful misreading of the situation) and one shouts, "I'm so confused."

There are also moments that cast some of the teens in a less-than-favorable light. At least one appears to make a tomahawk chop—an offensive gesture from sporting events in which team names have been taken from Native American culture. That is insensitive behavior that an adult in a position of authority over these young men should discourage in the future.

But most of the Covington kids do not perform tomahawk chops. Most jump, wave their arms, and cheer—and many do so before Phillips arrives. Their stated explanation—they were attempting to drown out the torrent of hate coming from the Black Hebrew Israelites—makes sense, and it squares with the timeline evident from the video.

If we are to construct a hierarchy of blame for what transpired, it is crystal clear who belongs at the top: the Black Hebrew Israelites. The poor choices everyone else may or may not have made look pretty insignificant by comparison.

Phillips also engaged in wrongdoing: His choice to blame the boys rather than the hate group exacerbated the fury on social media. And at least one of the members of his entourage appeared to be looking for an argument.

Some of the young men—not Sandmann—should have made other choices, and comported themselves differently in a highly charged and very public setting. Let this be a teachable moment for them.

Undoubtedly, it is a teachable moment for everyone who rushed to join the social media mob condemning the kids as abominable racists, including prominent journalists on the left, right, and center. To their credit, many have admitted their mistake.

Others have doubled down, offering a variety of explanations for why the new evidence doesn't sway them. Some of this is just goalpost shifting: Maybe Sandmann didn't do anything wrong, but what about the kid who made the tomahawk gesture? An image of Covington Catholic high school students in black body paint at a basketball game in 2012 is somehow supposed to be damaging to Sandmann's credibility (The New York Daily News: "This won't help Nick Sandmann's case"), as is the fact that public relations experts reviewed his statement (uh, of course they did).

But the most frustrating and worrying reactions have come from those who have convinced themselves that the extended video footage confirms their initial impressions. Of all the myriad examples of this, perhaps none is more contemptible than the effort by Deadspin's Laura Wagner, who writes, "Don't Doubt What You Saw With Your Own Eyes." Wagner accuses the Covington kids' defenders—me among them—of "siding with some shithead MAGA teens and saying that 2+2=5 in the face of every bit of evidence there is to be had."

But I know what I saw, and I think I know what Wagner saw, too. She saw a group of white teens wearing MAGA hats who had just engaged in partisan political activity on behalf of a cause she opposes (this last detail is more than sufficient on its own to convict the teens, according to several prominent progressive feminists). And that was enough.

In writing and speaking about this, I have drawn parallels to the Rolling Stone/University of Virginia gang rape hoax of 2014, which provides a powerful example of mainstream media getting a story very wrong in ways that permanently damaged the magazine's reputation.

But in the less insane media world of 2014, at least the Rolling Stone debunking was accepted by pretty much everyone. When friends of "Jackie," the alleged rape victim, came forward to help clarify that her alleged attacker did not exist, and was in fact a persona she had invented in order to catfish them, I don't remember many major pundits sticking their fingers in their ears and pretending not to hear this.

The ongoing effort to pretend that videos of boys doing pep rally type cheers in opposition to a hate group is in fact evidence of deep-seated racism makes me wonder whether Rolling Stone truther-ism would have been much more common had the story come out in 2019.