On May 28, 1963, a group of black college students staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Miss., during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The students sat in silence until noon, when Central High School broke for lunch. A crowd of white teenage boys then descended upon the protesters, taunting them with racial slurs and becoming violent. Sitting in peace, the demonstrators endured as teenage boys poured salt, ketchup and mustard on their heads.
On Jan. 18, 2019, a video went viral depicting a group of predominantly white students intimidating Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder and Vietnam War veteran. The students donned “Make America Great Again” hats and seemed to surround Phillips. In return, he played his ceremonial drum and responded with the “AIM Song,” a Native American protest song. One white male student stood directly in front of Phillips, smirking and blocking his path.
These two events are inextricably linked. The racism that courses through the nation’s veins has been reinvigorated by President Donald J. Trump’s term. For instance, the phrase “build the wall!” didn’t start as a proper policy proposal; it only manifested as a goal when Trump’s supporters responded enthusiastically. The phrase first became a slogan when Trump’s political advisers needed the presidential candidate to signal that he was tough on immigration. This catchphrase has now evolved into a symbol of white supremacy.
Phillips’ initial response to the incident was, “This is indigenous land! We’re not supposed to have any walls here; we never did.” He uttered this while wiping away tears.
But a genocide, the systematic wiping out of millions of indigenous peoples, was also committed on this land. And on top of that, a country was built upon the supremacy of the white European male over wives and daughters; over men, women and children brought over in bondage; and over Phillips’ ancestors. “Build the wall!” harkens back to this history and, unbeknownst to those white teenage boys from Covington Catholic High School, they were expressing their heritage — just as teenagers from Central High School did when they attacked another peaceful protest in 1963.
Further reporting has shown that the confrontation between Phillips and these students started at least an hour before the events in the initial video. A group of Black Hebrew Israelites were harassing the Covington Catholic boys, hurling homophobic slurs at them and disturbing their protest at the “March for Life” rally, an annual pro-life event held in Washington, D.C. The behavior of the Black Hebrew Israelites (who are notorious for harassing everyone who walks past them) does not excuse the boys’ actions toward Phillips, but it puts the situation in context.
The teenage boys elected to reply with school chants, standing their ground against adults who verbally harassed them. The group of boys are still young; their minds are not fully developed and they have a lot to learn about the world that has abruptly thrown them into the spotlight. This general criticism should not be taken as a dismissal of their potential to grow and learn. But that does not excuse the behavior of the adults on the trip.
The Covington Catholic students were chaperoned; parents and teachers laughed or stood quietly as their children or students taunted an elderly man. They seemingly saw no issue with their children’s behavior. Their silence emboldened the boys’ verbal harassment.
Covington Catholic High School released a statement promising direct action and condemning their students’ behavior. Nick Sandmann, the student who confronted Phillips, also issued a statement, but it did not include an apology.
Either way, an apology would not be enough; neither will a class field trip to a Native American reservation, as some have suggested. These Covington students require a complete restructuring of their worldview. They need to rid themselves of whiteness, and society as a whole needs to follow suit.
In the first semester of my sophomore year, I remember having a conversation on the floor of a sorority living room. My black friend and I were explaining to a white woman, our dear friend, that race is socially constructed.
“There’s nothing genetic about being white!”
“Of course! It’s only a construct. A DNA test would only tell you what part of the world your genome originated — it could never tell you that I was black or that you were white.”
“I didn’t know that.”
At first, I was amused by her ignorance, but then quickly remembered that I did not know this until my freshman year of college. The centrality of race in American society has led some to believe that whiteness exists and is biologically based. Skin color is obviously genetically determined, but whiteness is a lie that relates characteristics with the amount of melanin in your body. A person can be genetically traced back to sub-Saharan Africa or the Americas, but biologically they are not “white” or “black,” and those labels should not determine how they are treated.
But even though race and whiteness are fiction, they are still a scourge worth fearing.
This particular social construction created the world order that we live in today. Whiteness helped justify the transatlantic slave trade, perpetuate the Trail of Tears, motivate Jim Crow laws and transform “Make America Great Again” into a winning political statement. Race reminds everyone, the oppressor and the oppressed, that there is a hierarchy that needs to be upheld. But we no longer need this construction. The annals of history have proven that racial divides cause immense damage, and in 2019, just as in 1963, race is still being used as a powerful cudgel to divide and conquer: to build walls.
There is no immediate solution to this issue. But the primary lesson from this viral video is that we finally have reached a broader consensus — this malicious behavior is no longer tolerable.
Four days before the sit-in in Jackson, Miss., there was a famous meeting between James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, their peers and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
During that meeting, Hansberry told Kennedy, “I am very worried about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.”
She then smiled, turned and walked out of the room.
The events of last weekend prove that this civilization remains intact; it is up to us to dismantle its deadly core.
Boris Niyonzima (20C) is from New Milford, N.J.