By now, you have seen this image or the videos of high school white boys from Covington, Kentucky forming a mob around native elders to mock them. The video went viral and has been the talk of social media for days. Twitter and Facebook served as the public judge and jury for the kids. Then came the backlash and the PR tour. The white privilege counter. The victimhood narrative. The story became both infuriating and predictable in how it played out with the smirking kid in the MAGA hat getting invites to national network news programs.
A trip down segregation lane
I went to school in Ohio – my high school days outside of Akron in the northeast and my college days in Oxford in the southwest. Oxford is about 30 minutes north of Cincinnati, which is just across the border from Covington – where these kids go to school. The most striking thing about this region of the country is its segregation. If you drive south from Oxford, you’ll start in a small college town of middle class white kids. Then you’ll find yourself in the middle of cornfields until you reach a medium sized, diverse population center of Hamilton. Passing Hamilton, you are now in the middle of McMansions in the wealthy suburbs of Cincinnati. Driving thru Cincinnati, you experience one of the most segregated cities in America with historically black neighborhoods like Over the Rhine jutting next to gentrified neighborhoods made up of recent college graduates who want to experience the city life. Once you pass the bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky, you drive past expensive houses in the hills overlooking the river with a view of the skyline (and looking down on the black neighborhoods from above). You keep going thru a suburbia of chain stores until you hit the cornfields again. You drove about an hour.
That’s the world these kids grew up in. That’s the world we live in today. When we live in this world of segregation, we not only segregate our lives geographically – attend different churches, shop at different grocery stores, drink at different bars. But we also segregate our worldviews, our schools, our colleges, the way we see ourselves and our neighbors.
Justifying our bias
Our implicit biases help keep us confident in our worldview. Those kids wearing red MAGA hats don’t think they are racist. Those kids’ parents don’t think they are racists. People who identify themselves politically with red MAGA hats will not see those kids actions as racist or as a dangerous mob mentality. Even though many of us (if not all of us) carry some racial implicit bias, most of us don’t accept this as a problem.
Our society today mostly teaches us that racism is bad. But that alone hasn’t stopped the spread of racism. How does someone with racist attitudes justify to themselves that they aren’t racist? It’s actually pretty easy:
I am a good person
Racism is bad.
Only bad people are racists.
Good people aren’t racist.
I can’t be racist because I’m a good person.
It’s actually a simple trick we all use to feel better about ourselves. To make sure we get thru the day, each of us must believe we are fundamentally good people. That includes you – and Donald Trump, Louis C.K., Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Everything else we do and believe can be justified.
Put kids in cages? It’s for their own good. It will make America safe. I’m doing everything I can to make America Great.
Sexually assault women? That was a mistake, but I’m not a bad guy. Give me another chance. I make people laugh. My talent is what defines me.
Personally profit by busting unions and destroying workers’ rights? I’m creating jobs to benefit everyone. I’m making the world a better place. I give to charity. Look at what a great person I am.
No one will learn from this
This gets me back to these kids, their white privilege, the erasure of Native American culture and the media’s willingness to play into these justifications. No one will learn from this. The kids will continue to smirk their way to college. MAGA hats will continue to play out their victimhood complex. Twitter will continue to explode with this and the next racist videos. Native American cultural dignity will continue to be an after thought. Mainstream media will continue to call racism by it’s less polarizing name – “controversial” – so it can claim journalistic integrity when giving racists a platform. No one will learn from this.
When we live in our own enclaves – both physically and philosophically, we do not learn from each other. As one of my favorite people Robert F. Kennedy once said after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr:
When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force.
Look at the eyes of those kids. They look to me as confronting the elder as an enemy – meeting him not with cooperation, but with conquest, to subjugate and master. It’s easy to dismiss these kids with a label – racist, xenophobic, Trump supporters. If we only do that, we continue the segregation that allows this hatred to flourish. The more difficult, but perhaps needed action is to understand that these smirking, asshole kids are our kids. That the kids in Over the Rhine are our kids too. That we are one community – both loving and hateful, both diverse and segregated, both white and black. Until we do that, no one will learn from this.