John Gehring is Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life. In his recent piece at Commonweal he hopes that Covington Catholic School might view what happened last weekend at the Lincoln Memorial as a “teachable moment.” Here is a taste of his excellent piece:
After watching the longer video, it’s hard for me to square Phillips’s claim that the white students were going to attack the black men. The students were clearly agitated after being cursed at and ridiculed, but they were not advancing aggressively toward the men. But I was not there and so can’t speak to the fear others felt. Either way, Phillips may well have been right in sensing a potentially escalating situation. While he later explained that his movement toward the group of teenagers was meant to separate the young men from the Hebrew Israelites, in the heat of the moment there is no way the students could have known this, since Phillips never speaks or tries to explain what he is doing. No matter what happened before the moment seen in that segment of the video that went viral, once the two groups came together the students clearly acted with disrespect toward Phillips, displaying an arrogance, ignorance, and sense of superiority all too common among students at largely white prep schools. I wrote about my own experience with the attitudes, cultures, and norms prevalent in that kind of culture a few months ago, as the Brett Kavanaugh hearings unfolded: not as a sweeping indictment of all private schools, but as a reminder that privileged places rarely reflect on their own status in the world because the world is designed for and caters to them. Culture is the water we swim in each day. We don’t see it or question it unless we’re forced to open our eyes.
It’s not a revelation that people can watch the same video or review the same evidence and come away with different conclusions. Our life experiences, race, gender, and sexuality don’t determine who we are, but often influence what we see, omit, prioritize, and categorize. What you observe in this video might have less to do with a camera angle or length of footage than the interpretive lens you bring to issues, a lens that formed long before this incident. The challenge we all face, particularly white men, is this: How do we interrogate our own biases and blind spots?
I worry it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have these tough conversations, harder to slow down, and harder to think before we open rhetorical fire. Everyone knows social media exacerbates this problem. We live in a time when the news cycle never stops, when instant reaction is demanded. Twitter is often less a virtual public square in which substantive ideas are exchanged and debated than a performance space where we showcase our polished outrage and virtue. Instead of encouraging humility, empathy, and reflection, we’re celebrated for our speed, hot takes, and how many ideological opponents we can slay in 280 characters. I’m guilty of not always having the discipline to stop feeding this insatiable beast. Like others who have confessed their own haste on social media in recent days, I could have waited longer before tweeting about this incident and given more space to filling in the picture. But conservatives and MAGA bros who want to lecture liberals or dunk on so-called “PC mobs,” or who think these Catholic students come away from this as victims, need to step back. In aligning themselves with a demagogue who has boasted about assaulting a woman, mocked a disabled reporter, called a sitting member of Congress “Pocahontas,” and said there was blame “on both sides” of a bloody white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, they’re perpetuating a system and culture that celebrates the abuse of power. Make America Great Again hats are not KKK hoods, but you don’t exactly have to hide racism and nativism when the most powerful man in the world gives energy to those forces. Any principal who thinks it’s appropriate for students to wear MAGA clothing to a pro-life rally has thought very little about how this president debases human dignity on a near-daily basis. More broadly, prolife groups that have cozied up to Trump—while his administration caged immigrant kids and his Environmental Protection Agency lets polluters spew toxins that are dangerous to pregnant women—undermine the credibility of the prolife cause.
Once the media spotlight moves on from this latest viral moment, where do we go? Covington Catholic High School and every school now have the opportunity to use this episode to do better. Teach history—including the church’s complicity in white supremacy over the centuries—in a way that helps young people connect the dots between the past and present. Most Catholics, no matter their age, are uninformed about our own institution’s role in exploitation and oppression. “Catholic parishes rarely examine the church’s record of actively participating in the federal government’s conquest and colonization of Native Americans and the West, part of the church’s effort in the 19th and 20th centuries to gain mainstream acceptance in America,” William S. Cossen wrote in the Washington Post last week. Reckoning with this uncomfortable past, he writes, “is essential for coming to terms with the injustices faced by indigenous people both in history and in the 21st century.”
Read the entire piece at Commonweal.
This whole debate seems to come down to this: If you do not think MAGA hats and shirts are offensive, or believe that it is just fine if a Catholic school allows its students to wear MAGA stuff at a public event and get in the face of a Native American man trying to diffuse a situation, then you will support the boys and think that they did nothing wrong. If you think that MAGA hats and shirts are offensive because the entire phrase “Make America Great Again” is morally problematic (as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump), then you will criticize the boys.
But I would take this a step further. If I had a son who was carrying on like these boys–taking off their shirts, doing racist tomahawk chops, or mocking someone in public–I would bring him home and take him to the woodshed. I don’t care who provoked him. I would also be furious with the school and its chaperones for allowing the boys to behave in this way.