There is a reason the family of Covington High School student Nick Sandmann, the MAGA-hat wearing star of a viral video showing students mocking an Indigenous veteran, hired Louisville-based public relations firm RunSwitch PR to handle the video’s fallout.
One of the firm’s partners is Scott Jennings, who has worked on campaigns for Republican politicians like Mitch McConnell, Jeb! Bush, and Mitt Romney, in addition to serving as a special assistant to former President George W. Bush. As Jezebel’s Cilo Chang notes, Sandmann and his classmates— white, upper-middle class, religious, socially conservative—“are the future of the Republican Party.” And the future looks a lot like the racist past.
Many were incensed by the clip of Sandmann’s smirk as he stood before a chanting Nathan Phillips, and we rightly gauged that the narrative would quickly be upended in his favor.
Enter Reason’s Robby Soave, who published a story that added context—that Covington students were being harassed by the Black Israelites—but did not necessarily negate the crux of the initial criticism: these junior varsity deplorables were being disrespectful to an indigenous American. If anything, to learn that Phillips was actually trying to defuse the contentious situation on the Lincoln Memorial and was received as a comedic act by Sandmann and his classmates, makes it all the more infuriating.
Still, the apologies poured in from the journalists obsessed with the notion of being objective rather than truthful. Likewise, select publications rushed to place an asterisk around the situation for a similarly shameful pursuit. As Deadspin’s Laura Wagner wrote, we should not doubt what was already made apparent, but unfortunately, white people—particularly white men and white boys—always get the benefit of the doubt.
Considering that RunSwitch’s cofounder worked for a political party that has followed the Lee Atwater model of appealing to the racist sentiments of voters without sounding explicitly racist–a model followed to a T until Donald Trump decided it’s best to just yell your biases out loud– it’s not shocking how easily they’ve taken a controversy with the stench of racism and neatly repackaged it. After all, isn’t the white majority routinely looking for excuses to avoid any conversation about the pervasiveness of racism in society? Also, isn’t it something that although Megyn Kelly may be gone from the franchise, the business model to exploit the country’s racial animus by lending a platform to those who help stoke it remains?
From the TODAY Show’s staging alone, it was clear that Sandmann would be given a softball interview. His clothes don’t quite fit and he is curiously shot from above. He’s just a kid, y’all. He didn’t mean any harm. Kids make mistakes! Then there are those almost laughably easy questions.
It’s apparent from the outset that this teenager is not at all apologetic about his actions. “My position is that I was not disrespectful,” Sandmann argued. TODAY anchor Savannah Guthrie proceeded to fixate on the Black Israelites, furthering the narrative of “Sandmann as victim.”
And look, the antics of the Black Israelites are troubling. For years now, I have routinely walked by them as they berate white people who have moved into Harlem and gay men like me. They are verbally abusive and annoying as hell. Even so, that does not excuse the behavior of Nick Sandmann and the rest of those Covington students.
But their actions didn’t occur in a vacuum; racism like that is taught and learned and practiced. Less than a year ago, the school barred its queer valedictorian from delivering a speech; about three years prior, Covington High School students donned blackface during a 2015 basketball game.
And while Sandmann and co. did not yell back slurs at the Black Israelites, they did show up to the Indigenous People’s March wearing a symbol of bigotry; You don’t have to yell an epithet when your MAGA hat announces it for you. That smug smirk on Sandmann’s face as he stood before Nathan Phillips wearing that hat is a testament to the reality that some expressions of bigotry are more acceptable than others.
To the shock of no one, President Trump has rushed to the Covington boys’ defense, once again decrying “fake news.” He has also apparently invited them to the White House. Should they go, they might just run into Pat Cipollone, the recently named White House Counsel who happens to be from the Covington High School graduating class of 1984.
This Covington controversy reminds me of something I didn’t need reminding of: that the media still does not know how to tackle racism and cover racist incidents. Because of that, all these journalists rushing to apologize and absolve Sandmann of wrongdoing are essentially helping groom another generation of racists for higher office.
If Nick Sandmann doesn’t understand that, his parents obviously do, as does RunSwitch PR. Something tells me that he knows, though, and that smirk we saw on his face is sure to return—but this time with more power behind it.