White students with MAGA hats, Native Americans with drums, Black Hebrew Israelites with attitude: How the Left Got this One Wrong

If you’re reading this you’ve seen the photos and videos that ignited indignation on the political left: white high school students, several with MAGA hats surrounding a small band of native Americans drumming and chanting (and filming).

The most iconic shot involves the leader of the native American group elder Nathan Philips drumming and chanting face to face with a silent, smiling MAGA hat-wearing student.

maga hat and native photo


This is the shot circulated like wildfire on social networks and news media arousing outrage at the brazen disrespect of these white students for a Native American elder and veteran.

It was reported that Nathan Philips was a Vietnam veteran, he wasn’t (according to an update in the Washington post he served in the Marines in the 1970s, but wasn’t deployed). It was also reported and portrayed as if the student had confronted him, when other videos show that Nathan Philip and his marchers walked directly into the crowd of students and it seems more likely that Mr. Philips walked up to the student and got in his face.

Much has been made over the expression on the student’s face, most often referred to as a smirk as well as to the behavior of other students described as mocking the native Americans and chanting “build the wall.” A longer video of the student shows his facial expressions changing and showing degrees of discomfort. The student himself says he was trying to diffuse tension by simply standing there and looking the elder in the face.

In addition, I have seen no video clearly showing students chanting “build the wall.” It may have been chanted a few times by a few individuals (I just haven’t seen clear video proving otherwise). Nevertheless, it was hardly an extended, group rallying cry of any kind based on what I’ve seen.

However this media event got started, it was too easy to get liberals fired up. The young white boy with a red MAGA cap staring down an old brown Native American veteran in front of the Lincoln Memorial–the image seemed to capture in miniature Trump-inspired xenophobia, arrogance, and white nationalism. Politically liberal folks shared, liked, memed and generally made themselves feel like they were on the right side of this moral battle. The media took this up and repeated the same liberal framing.

Well, liberals make mistakes. The media makes mistakes. And we need, more than anything, to recognize when we do and own up to those mistakes. If we double-down, as I’ve seen many do on social media and news programs, we seem to be taking our cues from the double-downer in chief. Let’s not. Let’s admit our errors in judgment. What a thought! This is not so much about “taking the high road” as modeling what being open to new information looks like.

The longer video taken by one of the Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI) show them as the chief provocateurs.

Black Hebrew Israelite Video

The above video (over 50 minutes long) show the BHI insulting every group around beginning with Native Americans (they lost their land because they were “idolaters” and didn’t worship the true God, and claiming “Indian” means “savage”), black bystanders (they were “Uncle Toms” because they were angry at BHI instead of the MAGA hat-wearing teens), the Catholic High School students were called “child-molesting faggots,” “dirty ass crackers” etc. multiple times

The only point that BHI made that I personally agree with was the rhetorical question: “Let me ask y’all something, Ya’ll wanna build a wall with Mexico, when’s the last time you ever seen a Mexican, or a Hispanic, or a native American or a negro shoot up a school?”

The video shows BHI engaging with the students, taunting them, suggesting they will become school shooters. At one point the students laugh at the ridiculous suggestion. Then the video seems to show the high school students moving away from BHI and explicitly not engaging them.

The BHI video acknowledges this “Look at they ass. They ass scatter offa that one!….look at the mob of these dirty animals, they gone!”

About this time we begin to hear drumming from Native Americans and they come slowly walking in. Rather than turning up the steps to Lincoln Memorial that are clearly visible, they walk directly into the crowd of students.

The BHI video does not show the interaction between students and Native Americans in detail, but the student chanting and singing is shown and it looks more like young kids nervously trying to have fun and create a sense of solidarity in what must have been for them an unexpectedly hostile environment (given the continual stream of insults from BHI).

In subsequent interviews Nathan Philips has stated he felt endangered by the students surrounding him. This seems to tell us more about Nathan Philips’ own anxieties or insecurities than the situation on the ground. Similarly an older white person might say he or she felt endangered if a group of young black men enter a Starbucks, for example. People of color have insecurities about certain situations, just as white people have insecurities about certain situations. These sets of insecurities and anxieties are not the same. People of color have experienced structural forms of discrimination and prejudice which inform their suspicions and anxieties. White people’s anxieties are often informed by a position and assumption of privilege. While our insecurities can be differently structured, those insecurities don’t tell us the truth! They feed our suspicions and give us unfounded and irrational reasons to fear. So all of us need to do a better job of keeping our unfounded fears and suspicions in check so that we can see the truth that’s right in front of us.

So, my views of this situation have changed from “These kids are full of arrogance, disrespect and racism” to “these are kids on a visit to DC caught in a bizarre convergence of ‘protests,’  in the era of Trump.”

Disrespect towards native Americans? Check out Standing Rock for that! Or the forced eviction of Wet’suwet’en indigenous people in Canada. Young people can certainly be better educated about the history and experiences of native Americans, but militarized police forces protecting corporate interests over those of the people is the primary battle ground for indigenous rights today.

My views have also been modified from “Anyone who wears a MAGA hat must assent to Trump’s xenophobic at best, racist at worst agenda” to “Make America Great Again is an effective political slogan that appeals not simply to dyed-in-the-wool racists, but to kids who don’t know any better and is an example of Trump’s brand of genius.” Racism is a problem, but the solution to ignorance and insensitivity among children is education and guidance, not name-calling, belittling, and threats.

My message for my fellow liberally-minded readers is that this is a good opportunity for us to learn and grow into more sophisticated consumers of media. Just because something pushes our buttons and lines up with our expectations or fears doesn’t mean it’s true. You’ve probably read about confirmation bias. Well, learning to deal with it is a life-long journey. This event is a great opportunity to self-reflect and think about what triggers us and recognize that sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong. We also do well to remember that liberal-minded means broad-minded, not small-minded; it’s a burden, not a privilege.


P.S. There may be videos that I haven’t seen that could add information that could alter my view. If their were, for example, better evidence of hateful attitudes among the students, that could shift my views. As it stands they seem more like a typical group of kids, away from school.