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Michael A. Cohen

Jumping to conclusions about the MAGA hat confrontation

Snow covered the grounds of Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky. The school has received national attention in the wake of videos showing students from the school mocking Native Americans outside the Lincoln Memorial after a rally in Washington.
Snow covered the grounds of Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky. The school has received national attention in the wake of videos showing students from the school mocking Native Americans outside the Lincoln Memorial after a rally in Washington. (Lisa Cornwell/AP)

None of us can know with absolute certainty what happened Friday afternoon at the Lincoln Memorial when a group of teenaged boys from a Catholic school from Kentucky encountered a group of Native American demonstrators.

But one thing appears certain: Where you stand on this issue is likely to be determined by your partisan affiliation.

If you’re a liberal and a Trump hater, these MAGA-clad teenaged kids racially bullied Nathan Phillips and his group of fellow marchers. For conservatives, this is yet another example of the liberal media elite jumping to conclusions and unfairly tarring conservatives with a racist label. And nothing that provides further context or goes against ones ideological priors is likely to change minds. It’s the Trump era in a nutshell.

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I am hardly immune from the pull of motivated reasoning.

When I first saw the footage my mind was quickly made up and I tweeted about it: Here was yet another example of white people doing racist things in Trump’s America.

Surely these teenage boys had racially attacked this group of Native Americans. They were wearing pro-Trump paraphernalia weren’t they? And so what if I couldn’t actually hear any of the chant “build that wall,” as Phillips claimed? It had to be true. Like many people, I judged what had happened based, at least in some measure, by what these young men looked like.

After all, a group of white kids, wearing MAGA hats and shirts and in Washington for an anti-abortion rally, bullying a Native American Vietnam vet at the Lincoln Memorial on the Friday before MLK Day is the perfect metaphor for Trump’s America. Right?

Yet, as is often the case, the truth is far more complicated.

As more video trickled out, it became clear that the incident began when a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites began hurling racial and homophobic insults at the kids and calling them “incest babies” and school shooters. The one African-American student in the group was even told that his white classmates were going to harvest his organs. The kids began chanting school slogans in what they claim was an effort to drown them out.

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Phillips’s intervention was, as he has acknowledged, a direct response to this provocation — an effort he says to defuse the situation. But since he doesn’t appear to speak a word to them, it’s not hard to see how things became confused.

Should they have perhaps responded differently? Maybe. Did all of them act perfectly? Of course not. Was there racist intent with some of them? Perhaps, but it’s hard to be sure.

But however you view their actions, it seems clear to me that they didn’t initiate this confrontation. Expecting 16- and 17-year olds to do everything exactly right in a situation like this is to place a set of unrealistic expectations on them that we would rarely place on another group of teenagers. Personally, I’m not comfortable being part of a social media mob when there’s just enough ambiguity to give me pause about what really happened. That’s especially true when we’re talking about children.

Yes, it’s true that the “Make America Great Again” slogan is for many people a symbol of white supremacy — and these kids and their parents should perhaps spend some time thinking about the message they are sending by wearing such items in public.

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Perhaps the conservatives who are so up in arms about the reaction to this should step back and ask themselves why it is that Americans are so quick to accuse those wearing MAGA hats of racism. Maybe they should stop viewing themselves, once again, as victims, but as enablers.

It’s also fair to ask about the racial attitudes at their school, where most of the students and teachers are white; or question the appropriateness of bringing a group of young men to a march in Washington, D.C., advocating for taking away reproductive rights from women.

There is a plenty of room for criticism and questions about all of these issues.

But for me these are separate from charges of racial bullying and intimidation. The immediate and visceral response to these videos appears to have been wrong. The quickness and venom with which many on the left were willing to condemn them — and I’m including myself here — seems decidedly over the top.

The problem, however, is that we’re living in a political moment where facts and truth have taken a back seat to emotion and outrage. Our politics are so hyperpolarized and the distrust is so great that reasoned discourse and contemplation has become nearly impossible. Honest disagreement is no longer possible. There can be no middle ground. Either you are with us or against us.

Even after new video evidence emerged, many simply moved the goalposts or came up with new reasons for criticizing these kids.

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The same group of people who two days earlier were tweeting my condemnations are now questioning my motives and accusing me of wanting to exonerate white men of wrongdoing. Conversely, the same group of people who were unwilling to give Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice the benefit of the doubt continue to leap to these kids’ defense. And so it goes.

This incident and the reaction to it could have served as a useful cautionary tale. Don’t jump to conclusions and start foaming with self-righteous outrage before all the facts are in. Perhaps approach these types of situations with a sober mind and a realization that eyewitness videos don’t necessarily tell us the entire story. This entire situation could have served as a teachable moment, particularly for the high school students at the center of it. Instead it’s become yet another moment for outrage, rancor, and warming ourselves in the glow of our moral certainty. Maybe the ultimate lesson from all this is that perhaps we should do a bit more listening . . . and a bit less tweeting.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.