“Just a Kid”: Questioning Selective Accountability in the Media
On January 18, online videos emerged of a teenage boy wearing a “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hat and smirking at a Native American elder who was beating a drum on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The initial clip was about a minute long and went viral within a matter of hours. A clear narrative began to form: the Native elder was resilient in the face of an overwhelming, jeering crowd of disrespectful, MAGA hat-wearing, White teenage boys.
By January 19, the teenagers had been identified as students of Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, visiting DC for the March for Life, an annual anti-abortion rally. The school diocese apologized to the Native elder. Hollywood liberal elites like Alyssa Milano and Jamie Lee Curtis quickly took to Twitter to condemn the teenagers’ actions.
By January 20, more information and videos came out. Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder, spoke to multiple news outlets about what had happened, stating that he was trying to diffuse a situation between the crowd of teenagers and a group of Black Hebrew Israelites.
Some people discovered the identity of the teen online, but, as Twitter user Arlen Parsa explained in a lengthy Twitter thread, decided not to reveal his name because “he’s a kid.” But then, Nick Sandmann, the teenager himself, started speaking out.
A longer, almost two-hour video taken by a member of the Black Hebrew Israelites gave more context to the situation. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Black Hebrew Israelites are a radical Black supremacist group within the Hebrew Israelite movement who believe that its members are the true Israelites, that Jewish people are imposters, and that White people are evil. Videos showed the group of Black Hebrew Israelites taunting the Covington students at the Lincoln Memorial that day. This is when Phillips stepped in. As he explained it to CNN, “It looked like these young men [from Covington Catholic] were going to attack these [Black Hebrew Israelites].” After entering the situation and finding himself physically confined in front of Sandmann, Phillips decided to start singing. “The song I was singing, the reason for it, was to bring unity and to bring love and compassion back into our minds and our beings as men and as protectors of what is right.”
Phillips and photojournalist Jon Stegenga both say the students chanted “build that wall” and “Trump 2020,” but these phrases can’t be heard clearly in the video. Sandmann released a statement saying he did not hear any chants, but rather asked permission of his chaperones to “begin our school spirit chants to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group.” He told the “Today Show,” “We’re a Catholic school… They don’t tolerate racism, and none of my classmates are racist people.”
Yet in contrast, another video of Covington students harassing a group of girls earlier in the day adds another perspective on the character of these students and the behavior they believe to be permissible. Dr. Julie Dobrow, Director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Studies at Tufts, whose research focuses on children and media, noted that “some of what I think of as important issues [in this story] haven’t gotten as much play, like how the ‘tomahawk chop’ some of the Covington kids did [in the videos] is actually emblematic of the larger issue of Native mascotry, a distressing misuse and appropriation of Native imagery, icons, and names.”
Somehow, what was initially a cut-and-dry event became an increasingly complicated situation as new information, videos, and narratives poured out. The plethora of new information caused many major news outlets to backtrack on their initial coverage denouncing Sandmann. More celebrities and liberal figureheads apologized for their rush to judgement. Sandmann got a one-on-one interview on the “Today Show.” Fox News portrayed the teens as victims of the Black Hebrew Israelites; Trump tweeted that the students were “treated unfairly;” March for Life took down a tweet with a statement condemning the students.
While there are countless accounts of what happened at the Lincoln Memorial that day, as observers, we are forced to rely on the media’s response to the events in order to arrive at our own interpretation of the “truth.” It is clear, in any case, that Sandmann got significantly more airtime, which allowed the media to humanize him in a way that obscures and discredits Phillips’ story.
In contrast, David Hogg, a 17 year-old student-turned-advocate after the Stoneman Douglas shooting, has had his life consistently torn apart by pro-gun, conservative outlets. Alex Jones, a right-wing conspiracy theorist, accused Hogg and others of being actors. Former US Senator Rick Santorum said the teenagers should stop protesting and learn CPR instead. Throughout all of this, Hogg has persistently pushed back on Twitter and amassed a following of over 900,000. When conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham made fun of Hogg for getting rejected from four colleges, he tweeted out a list of her advertisers, which gained enough traction to have them pull out. Hogg has continued his work for gun control advocacy and has been able to both gain and maintain a platform, despite being subjected to seemingly unrelenting criticism.
Sandmann and Hogg provide examples of the contrasting media coverage of two young White men and the different spins that can be applied to the idea of someone being “just a kid,” but the concept of youth plays out even more disparately when it comes to children of color. Darren Lone Fight, a lecturer in American Studies at Tufts, discussed the asymmetrical implementation of forgiveness for different youth: “the absence of that application of empathy places an unfair and destructive burden on minors of color who are then held to different and unfair standards governing exculpable behavior,” Lone Fight said.
We can clearly see this unfair burden in a fellow classmate turned advocate of Hogg’s, Emma Gonzalez. She also faced a barrage of criticism after she began advocating for gun control, but many of the attacks she faced were racialized and gendered. Steve King, Iowa Representative and defendant of White supremacy, posted a meme about Gonzalez that read: “this is how you look when you claim Cuban heritage yet don’t speak Spanish and ignore the fact that your ancestors fled the island when the dictatorship turned Cuba into a prison camp, after removing all weapons from its citizens; hence their right to self defense.” A Republican candidate for the Maine State House called Gonzalez a “skinhead lesbian.” Conservative outlets tried to assert that Gonzalez bullied the shooter. Again, media outlets and public figures chose to pry into the life of a young person, often in racist and homophobic ways. For Gonzalez, a young, queer activist of color, privacy was not an option.
On the topic of these kinds of media attacks young people of color, Lone Fight emphasized that “this has ramifications far beyond social judgment: it also relates to the frequency of minors of color being tried in the court system as adults as well as more broadly the disparate rates of conviction and length of sentencing for people of color vs White offenders.”
In September 2015, high school freshman named Ahmed Mohamed made a clock and brought it to MacArthur High School in Dallas, Texas, as a project he was hoping to show his teachers. Instead, after being told the clock looked like a bomb, the teen was arrested and faced a threat of expulsion. The internet immediately sprung into action, as a slew of supportive tweets and messages went out to Mohamed and his family. While some officials from NASA and the White House tweeted sympathies, many other prominent figures in media did the opposite.
Sarah Palin, for example, declared that Obama’s support of Mohamed was inappropriate and that his clock didn’t really look like a clock. On the air for his show Real Talk With Bill Maher, the host stated that though the student was young, the accusations were not off base, since “so many young Muslim men” had committed terrorist attacks in recent years. “He’s young, 14, but that’s not like it’s never happened before, [they haven’t] blown up a lot of shit around the world,” Maher said. Though Maher acknowledged that Mohamed deserved an apology, for many, Mohamed’s young age wasn’t enough for him to be forgiven, or for his name to be kept out of the news cycle like it was for Sandmann. It is hard to ignore the prejudiced aspects of this dichotomy in the tying of Mohamed’s faith and race to the justification of the destruction of his character.
Hogg, Gonzalez, and Mohamed all show that despite good intentions, they were not afforded the privilege of being “just a kid.” Whether it be because of their politics, religion, or race, when the person in question does not fit the same mold as Nick Sandmann—affluent, white, male, conservative—the narrative in many media outlets, often is not one of forgiveness and understanding for youthful ignorance. Anything outside of that mold, as Hogg, Mohamed, and Gonzalez show, yields an outcry of criticism and personal attacks on identity.
In various situations, the idea of youth has been conflated with a right to privacy and a lack of responsibility. However, these privileges are only afforded to those with certain identities and access to public platforms. While our attention is usually focused on national debates, it has serious impacts on our own campus as well. The website Canary Mission, a pro-Israel platform aimed at “blacklisting” anyone who advocates for a free Palestine, tracks and documents pro-Palestine activists on college campuses. The site gathers public information on students involved in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), including screenshots of people’s Facebook profiles and known social affiliations. The organization has stated that it works to prevent these students from gaining employment.
Tufts students and professors can be found on the website, alongside all personal information that can be gleaned from social media. Three years ago, the website’s information was used to gather information about students in SJP and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) at Tufts. Anonymous posters were stickered around campus listing 10 students and one professor, calling them “HAMAS TERRORISTS.”
More recently, a Tufts senior with an offer to continue her education with a Tufts masters program posted a picture of herself in blackface with the caption “Yeezy 2020,” referring to rapper Kanye West’s potential presidential run. A screenshot of this private Instagram story was shared across various Facebook groups, and quickly prompted a response from President Anthony Monaco. In a letter to the Tufts community on January 24, Monaco wrote: “We are fully investigating this incident through our Office of Equal Opportunity and will ensure that appropriate disciplinary processes are followed for violations of University policy.” Across campus, students have been wondering how this student will be held accountable. At the time this article was written, she has not yet received any public reprimand for her actions.
We need to reframe our understandings of youth and consequences. As Lone Fight said, “the issue here isn’t that White minors aren’t held to a high enough standard, it’s that minors of color are too often held to an unrealistic and unfair higher standard.” He added that we should “attempt to provide the space and tools to youth and enable them to ask and receive forgiveness for poor choices and behavior.” Nathan Phillips has already expressed forgiveness for Sandmann.
Elise Sommers, a senior majoring in American Studies who taught the Experimental College class “Queering Childhood: Examining Innocence and Identity,” told the Observer in an email that “agency, identity, and accountability (or lack of accountability) are realities for kids. The question is how are adults supporting, empowering, and challenging kids to use their power to build a more just world.” Accordingly, it is our responsibility as adults and consumers of this media to follow Phillip’s empathy, but make sure that we do not apply it only to youth with certain privileges and platforms.