When thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the push for racial equality and civil rights, people don’t often give much thought to the point of view of the racists. We tend to think of their perspective as some moral defect of the past beyond which we’ve evolved, rather than really asking how people got something so obvious so wrong.
This attitude is particularly odd given that — from the talk of mainstream news sources and other culture-setters — one would think a resurgence could happen at any time. So, again, if people are on the verge of a racist recrudescence, why? And, again, one gets the impression that we tend to think of it as a moral defect in those people — the people who are not like us. The bitter clingers and deplorables.
Is it, though?
On Saturday evening, I came across a Facebook post by Ken Block (founder of Rhode Island’s self-described Moderate Party) about an incident in Washington, D.C., following the March for Life. According to the Washington Post’s headline, the story was, “Teens mock and jeer Native American elder on the Mall.” First line and subhead: “A group of high school teens surrounded and jeered Native American elder…”
The video screen shot that adorns the story shows some white boys with “Make America Great Again” hats, caught at just the right moment to suggest one boy was smirking in the face of an older Native American while another boy makes what looks like a violent donkey face.
I think of the time when I used to cover state and local events. I would take photos in bursts of 10 rapid-fire shutter flicks and repeat that several times for each shot. Over the course of 30 images, one would usually turn out OK. The number of shots in my digital folders that make our public officials look like goofs or villains is high, but I never used those because it wouldn’t be fair. A face frozen in time can tell a much different story without the context of where it was a moment before and where it would be a moment later.
So, the image of these boys — promoted worldwide by putative adults — was designed to turn kids into villains in order to advance a political ideology, and we now know that the framing of the video was misleading, too. The teens did not “surround” the man. He marched into their group as they were engaging in school cheers, and it took them a moment to figure out whether he was being playful and culturally commiserative or something else. The so-called smirking boy wasn’t confronting the man. Rather, the man got in the face of the boy with his drum and his chant. The smirk was more a look of “what am I supposed to do in this situation”?
None of this, by the way, was impossible to guess from the very first video that went viral. All one had to do was to try to see the incident from the perspective of the boys.
They were hanging around on a Washington adventure, waiting for their bus and shouting community cheers. Meanwhile (not knowable from the first video) a group of black radicals was nearby insulting and taunting them. A small group of Native Americans marched into their midst not just beating drums but swearing and treating them like foreign invaders.
In those circumstances, the absolute worst of the student conduct shown was a few boys engaging in the Native-American-ish cheer and air hatchet move that kids have been doing at athletic events since I was in high school. That response implies nothing more aggressive than one group of fans’ good-natured interaction with the other team’s fans.
And there’s Rhode Island’s “moderate” calling the kids “sickening” and threatening to “unfriend” anybody who wants to defend them. In the comments, local talk radio host Tara Granahan opined that if “that kid… were my son… he’d be doing some serious hard time at home and in the community… They need to be punished. Period.” Others in the comment thread encouraged violence against the boys.
That played out around the country, presumably at all levels of media, social and mainstream. An editor at the conservative magazine National Review wrote overnight going into Sunday (in a post that has since been removed) that the boys might as well have “spit on the cross.” The kids’ school and the mayor of their hometown denounced them.
Over the course of a weekend, we got a lesson in how people who ought to know better can get things so wrong.
Now, remove the Internet and the fact that the cultural scales are somewhat balanced between the sides, and you’ll see how systemic racism could be perpetuated. If the extended videos and testimonies proving the vicious error of the first mainstream reports could not travel nearly as quickly and broadly, that impression would have stuck and built upon other, similar reports. Violence encouraged against the teens on social media would have become violence enacted in real life. (Actually, that’s already been happening in ways both minor and terrifying.)
The moral defect in those people is the moral defect in you. The only way to overcome it is to make a practice of trying to see others’ actions in the best possible light, to see the world from their perspective, whether the difference is the color of their skin or the color of their hats.
Featured image: screen shot from the original viral video.