Anti-racist activist Tim Wise: Here's what I'd tell the Covington Catholic boys

Tim Wise on Covington: "Their school has failed, their parents have failed and they have failed as human beings"

By Chauncey DeVega

Published January 28, 2019 8:45AM (EST)

 (AP/Butch Dill/City Lights Publishers)
(AP/Butch Dill/City Lights Publishers)

White privilege can sometimes be obvious. The racist harassment of a Native American man named Nathan Phillips by a group of MAGA hat-wearing white teenagers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington is one prominent recent example.

Yet white privilege operates in plain sight while also being invisible to those who choose not to see it. "Don't believe your lying eyes" is one of Donald Trump's key directives to his followers and also a rule of white privilege in America and other parts of the world.

In its most powerful and enduring form, white privilege works through social and political institutions. It is hegemonic and omnipresent while still allowing its beneficiaries to claim plausible deniability and innocence, and to hide behind disingenuous claims of ignorance.

But in its most immediate and interpersonal form, white privilege is made real by how it acts through -- and on -- different types of bodies. In this way, white privilege relies on a bargain, both tacit and active, on the part of white society and white individuals.

How is the Covington Catholic High School MAGA mob an example of white racial innocence and white privilege? Why do so many white Americans, especially white conservatives, feel obligated to make excuses for the behavior of one group of teenage boys? What does the harassment and taunting of Nathan Phillips reveal about the lessons America's schools and American culture have taught young people about racism? How do hypocrisy and double standards give white people permission for bad behavior, while punishing and condemning the same behavior by others?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Tim Wise, one of the nation's leading anti-racism activists and a frequent guest on MSNBC and other news outlets. Wise is the author of numerous books, including “Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority,” as well as “Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Why has the video of the Covington Catholic High School students become such a national controversy? It is almost like the Zapruder film for the age of Trump and all that he represents.

The Zapruder film is a great analogy, because it seems that people are seeing what they want to see. But having said that, no one looks at the video of the Trump MAGA teenagers from Kentucky and Native American elder Nathan Phillips with purely objective eyes.

I think that when you step back for a second and look at what happened in that video it is obvious that there are lots of elements at work.

Many white Americans -- at least white Americans on the right, but also many white Americans more generally -- either can’t see the problem with the way the Covington teenagers behaved, or they want to make excuses by mentioning the Black Hebrew Israelites.

The Black Hebrew Israelites are literally a cult. They don’t represent anyone. Their whole shtick is to stand on the corner in New York or D.C. or wherever and berate everybody. That’s what they do. It’s like Fred Phelps or any other street preacher. They just yell at people.

The idea that the Black Hebrew Israelites would therefore be a reason for these white kids to stare down an indigenous elder and do "tomahawk chops" and "war whoops" and caricatured impersonations of indigenous people is an inherently racist argument. Why? Because it suggests that people of color are transferable and interchangeable. So if a black person says some mean stuff to you then you can take it out on a Native American person.

Interestingly, the white Covington teens did not step to the Black Hebrew Israelites. I find that fascinating. I wonder why? Probably because they also bought into the stereotype that they’d get their butts kicked: "We don’t want to mess with the black guys, they’re dangerous." Even their willingness to transfer their anger to a Native American man speaks to raises on a number of different levels.

The level of denial that people will bathe and marinade in is great. A bunch of white kids descended on Washington in MAGA gear, clothing which by definition is a provocation to people of color.

I’m not going to say that you necessarily are a racist in a conscious sense if you wear Trump's MAGA regalia. I am going to be as generous as I can possibly be. But at the very least, if you wear Trump's uniform you are indifferent to the feelings of people of color. Because if you were not indifferent you would think to yourself, "Wait a minute, hold on. For people of color America wasn’t really that great. Maybe I shouldn’t wear this."

When you wear that hat, you are basically saying that the lived realities of marginalized people just doesn’t matter to me. At that point, whether you’re a racist in a conscious sense or not is irrelevant. You are obviously contributing to a larger problem.

I won’t be as generous. The core of racism is collective narcissism, double standards, and hypocrisy. At this point, MAGA gear are the colors of a political gang. The Covington Catholic High School students were wearing that Trump regalia to be intentionally provocative, as many entitled young white people are. They wanted negative attention. MAGA clothing is an implied if not explicit threat.

If you go to a private Catholic school and then go to an anti-choice rally, that is not surprising. I get it. That’s the official position of the Catholic Church.

But you know what else is the official position of the Catholic Church? Well, the Catholic Church is against the death penalty. It is also in favor of social programs that fight poverty. The Catholic Church is also against militarism and war.

But I can’t imagine any of these white teenagers from Covington Catholic showing up at a rally against the death penalty. Or showing up at a rally in favor of social programs for poor people. Or showing up at a rally against war. They’re not going to do that.

When they put on the MAGA gear, what they are basically saying is, we identify with Donald Trump's hyper-nationalistic, xenophobic, racist agenda. So even if one is being the most generous to the Covington Catholic teens and other people who wear Trump's hats and the like, it is still pretty horrible.

By definition, Trump supporters who wear MAGA gear -- including the Covington Catholic teens -- have demonstrated a horrible indifference to the experiences of other people. That’s the best you can say about them. If that’s the best you can say, then what you can say is that their school has failed, their parents have failed and they have failed as human beings.

White privilege and white racial innocence are important here as well.

This is a very good example of how in America there is a much higher standard on the marginalized and the oppressed than there is on the marginalizer and the oppressor.

We ask of black and brown folks, people of color, that they be kinder to the white folks who are giving them a hard time, than we do of the white folks who are giving them a hard time. We expect better behavior from protesters of injustice than we do the perpetrators of injustice.

We are talking on Martin Luther King's holiday. So much of Dr. King's work and vision has been understood in a really inaccurate way. There is this idea that we should all remember that Dr. King wanted to be better than his tormentors.

Dr. King’s message was far more complicated than that. The problem is that such a misreading of Dr. King's philosophy can devolve into letting the oppressor off the hook. It ends up sounding like we want to be better than them, but we’re not going to ask them to change. We’re not going to ask them to be better. We’re just going to be more high-minded. We’re going to be more moral.

That can be a very dangerous approach. While being strategic, we do not want to ask of protest movements that they be better behaved than oppressive individuals. At some point we need to hold oppressors and those who benefit from that system to at least as high a standard, if not a higher standard, than the standard to which we hold the marginalized.

Is there any clear example of racism in recent memory where conservatives have been on the right side of history?

I can’t think of a single example of anti-black racism, anti-Latino racism, anti-Muslim Islamophobia or bigotry where conservatives have said, “Oh my God, this crosses the line.” Meanwhile, these are the same people who said during the Obama administration that Barack Obama was a racist simply because he criticized the white cop who profiled Henry Louis Gates.

Or these are the same white people who said that Barack Obama was racist because in one of the bills that was passed while he was president there was a small tax that was assessed on tanning bed visits. Obviously, tanning bed visits are correlated with cancer and this just adds to the cost of health care.

There were actually white conservatives on talk radio who said this was racist, because white people are the ones who go to tanning beds and Obama was clearly attacking white people.

There was a very interesting rhetorical move made by the defenders and apologists for the Covington teens. It is very much White Victimology 101. In this logic the Black Israelites are somehow responsible for the bad behavior of the white teens. This deflection says so much about racial authoritarianism and a certain cultural logic in America: How dare any black or brown person make a white person uncomfortable?

Look, I have been in New York City and been accosted by the Black Israelites and called a "cracker" and all kinds of other stuff. To be honest, I find it sort of comical. First of all, it has literally no impact on my life. Is it sort of obnoxious? Yes, but it’s also sort of comical. I just sit there and say to myself, “Wow, really?”

I do not take it seriously because I know that the least powerful people on that corner are the Black Hebrew Israelites. Who has power? Me or them? Not them. What are they really going to do? They’re going to make me feel bad. Their whole job is to make me feel bad. I cannot take that seriously.

On the other hand, white people have the power to wreck the lives of those Black Hebrew Israelites. White people, whether it’s cops or whomever, could come along, sweep them up and throw them in jail for harassment or whatever else. So ultimately it is kind of absurd to get your feelings hurt by rude comments from the Black Hebrew Israelites.

Is it nice for them to call the Covington Catholic students and other white people "incest babies" and "crackers"? I guess not. But what is the history of black people calling white people incest babies and crackers and then stringing them from trees? Is there any history of such happenings that I somehow missed? No. It did not happen.

On the other hand, white folks, like those kids in Kentucky with their MAGA gear -- or white folks in earlier generations -- did in fact do significant harm to people of color and continue to do so.

Then, of course, to project that anger at the Black Hebrew Israelites onto Native people is even more absurd and more indicative of the larger disease in which people of color are interchangeable. If one of them insults us white people, then we can take out our anger and aggression on everybody else.

This is the real problem. If black and brown folks thought that oppression was being made "uncomfortable" -- which is the excuse being made for and by the Covington kids -- then there would be literally no second of the day when a person of color would say that they weren’t being actively oppressed.

Because discomfort is a moment by moment reality in black and brown life. For white folks, it’s like "Oh my God, you made me think about things I didn’t want to think about and therefore I’m oppressed!" That is evidence of privilege. That is evidence of entitlement.

Then there is the photo of white students at Covington Catholic High School painting themselves in black and even having white paint around their eyes and mouths--the essence of blackface--at a basketball game.

There is nothing ambiguous about wearing blackface. They were playing against a team which had African-American players.

No. 1, you are in some sense mocking the team you’re playing. No. 2, you’re obviously oblivious to the history of blackface as a racist performance. Even if you want to read it in the most generous way, these are people who are utterly ignorant and indifferent to the history of racism in America.

Again, the school is failing in its obligations. The parents are utter failures as parents. The children are not being challenged at all to understand or think about the history and the legacy of racism in America.

Going back to the hypocrisy and double standard, if it was a mob of 50 to 70 black or Hispanic or Muslim young people -- hell, I’ll even say Democrats or gays and lesbians -- who acted out against a white older Trump supporter, there would be a moral panic led by Fox News and Donald Trump.

But by comparison, questions are never asked about "what is going on in the white community" or "what is wrong with white homes" or "where are the white leaders" or "what is being taught in 'white' schools" when there is bad behavior by white young people or adults. 

The vast majority of white families really do not think about, connect to or spend any significant amount of time worrying about racial inequity and the legacy of racism in America. That is the sad, pathetic truth.

I have no doubt that if you are growing up in Covington, Kentucky, -- or anywhere in America, not just Kentucky -- and you’re white, the odds are pretty good you don’t know much about the realities of racism. Why would you? Your school probably didn’t cover it. Your parents probably didn’t teach you.

At some point we have to demand better of our educators. We have to demand better of schools, whether public or private, parochial or whatever it is, to say, well, you have an obligation to prepare your young people for the world as it is.

For these young white people in Covington, the reality is the world looks very different than them. Even this country looks very different than they do. I gather that they have grown up in a world where they thought they were the norm, and they’re having a really hard time coming to grips with the fact that they are not.

They are not the typical person on this planet. They are not even, increasingly, the typical person in America, and they are going to have to learn to deal with that. So the schools are going have to do a better job. It’s not that I don't blame the Covington teenagers supporters for their behavior. It’s that I believe the institutions and the structures in which they find themselves are obviously incredibly flawed, and I want them to do better.

I am willing to say to the students, "Yes, you’ve been badly served by your institutional leaders. But that doesn’t free you from the obligation of learning the things that you need to learn in order to be a functional human being." The Covington students who acted out in D.C. clearly have not learned those lessons yet.

Racism is learned behavior. These are cultural scripts and codes. The Covington teenagers used the narratives of racism, and mocked Nathan Phillips using racial signifiers. Everything they did to him was an example of white supremacy and racial animus. It wasn’t neutral. They focused on his race and ethnicity. They knew exactly what they were doing.

When you start doing "tomahawk chops" and "war whoops," it’s obvious that you have a clear understanding of the way to marginalize and signify against indigenous people. You did not just use some random taunt. You used a taunt that you know has been the source of significant controversy for some years now. You cannot make a genuine and honest claim that you do not know what those "tomahawk chops" and "war whoops" mean.

If that young man had not wanted to smirk and intimidate this indigenous man he could have said, “Hey, can we go talk?” Nick Sandmann could have extended his hand and shaken Nathan Phillips' hand.

Maybe they wouldn’t have agreed on things, but that would have been a respectful way to engage, and he didn’t. He just sat there with that obnoxious grin on his face, a grin that is really sort of the modern equivalent of the smirks that were on the faces of the white men who surrounded the sit-in protesters in 1960 in Greensboro or Nashville.

Or were smirking in lynching photographs, or participating in ethnic cleansing and racial pogroms. They’re all smirking and smiling because it’s fun for them.

Or the defendants who killed Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner sitting back chewing tobacco in the courtroom, thinking how great it was that they had been acquitted. That may or may not have been the intention. Again, I’m willing to pretend for the sake of argument that their intentions are not evil.

But the point is, your intentions do not acquit you. The fact that you did not wake up that morning in whatever hotel you stayed in on your high school trip to the "pro-life" march and say to yourself, “God, I really hope I get to offend some people of color today.” That is not the point.

The point is, when you were there, instead of saying, “Wait a minute, yes we are being berated by this handful of Black Hebrew Israelites, whatever, who cares.” This indigenous man wades into the group as a peacekeeper. It is obvious that is Nathan Phillips' obvious intent.  It is clear he’s trying to interrupt the dynamic of tension and hostility.

Instead of having what could have been a productive conversation with Mr. Phillips, these white teenagers wanted to stare down this Native man and diminish him. They wanted to make Mr. Phillips into a racist cartoon.

White conservatives, especially Christian conservatives, love to have a narrative about "family values." Respect for tradition, respect for our elders, deference and politeness. Those values seemed to go out the window with the Covington Catholic teenagers.

Because if they actually believed those things, these young white boys would say, "Here’s someone who is obviously older than we are. How about we show some respect? How about we show some deference? How about we shut our mouths and listen, even if we disagree with the man?" Again, that shows you the deep levels of hypocrisy.

In my opinion they are just liars. By his own admission, Nick Sandmann and his family met with a public relations firm.

I would love for Tamir Rice’s family to have a PR firm. I would love for John Crawford’s family or Eric Garner’s family to have a PR firm. I would love for other people of color such as Rekia Boyd, Aiyanna Stanley-Jones or Trayvon Martin’s family to have a PR firm at their disposal who can come and write these beautiful statements and make everyone love them.

Sandmann's family got a PR firm almost immediately to write a really pretty statement. If anyone actually read Sandmann's statement and believes it, they could not be more naïve.

As you said, if the Covington Catholic High School boys were a group of black kids who had come to D.C. on a high school tour, and confronted five or six white people giving them a hard time, and then acted in a boisterous way in response, would they be given the amount of slack and generosity being shown these white boys?

What if Covington Catholic High School reached out to you and said, “Tim Wise, we want you to come down here and give a talk, and also perhaps do a private workshop and talk to these young white boys who accosted Nathan Phillips.” Would you take the invitation? What would you tell them? What would your approach be?

I would gladly take the invitation. I would say to them, let’s start from the beginning. What did you know? When did you know it? If you didn’t know it, why didn’t you know it? I would try to approach the Covington students as people who, having invited me, were clearly interested in more than a superficial conversation. Because if you’re going to invite me, I assume you’re prepared to be challenged, so I would say let’s have a real conversation about why you had such blind spots around your behavior in D.C.

Again, I’m willing to take you in the most favorable light. But only if you’re willing to do the work. If you’re willing to actually explain to me how you can make these comments and not be horrible human beings, I will gladly have that conversation with you. I’m willing to say, look, man, people do stupid stuff. Good people can find themselves in bad systems. It happens. We all have found ourselves in bad systems, including bad systems of thought and behavior.

But my challenge to them would be: Are you prepared to acknowledge your error, to make amends for the error, and to move to a different place? If the answer to that is yes, then I’m totally down to have that conversation with you. Because who else is going to do it? It’s not brother Phillips’ job to do that work. It’s not black folks’ job to do that work.

If anybody is going to do that work with these white folks in Kentucky, it is white folks like me and others. That is our job. That’s what we need to be doing. But I’m not going to do it if you’re not down to have the conversation.

Now, if you show me that you’re down to have the conversation, I will go anywhere at any time and I will have the conversation. I will be genuine with you and honest with you and I won’t be hateful and judgmental towards you. I will be as real with you as I can be.

But you have to admit in the process of that how you have been ill-served by your parents, by your schools and by the society at large. If you’re willing to do that, then I’ll meet you halfway and we’ll go from there.

Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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