By Ellen McGirt
Updated: January 23, 2019 5:03 PM ET
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Who gets to be redeemed?

I’ve been thinking about 12-year-old Tamir Rice playing with his toy gun, alone in a Cleveland park; killed by a police officer who took just two seconds to decide whether the child was a lethal threat.

I’ve been thinking about the many black girls, ages 5-14, who research shows are viewed by society as older and more sexualized than they are, and less in need of comfort or protection; and the black boys who, by the age of ten, are more likely to perceived by their white peers as older, criminally inclined, and dangerous.

I’ve been thinking about the Indigenous girls and women who remain disproportionately kidnapped, trafficked, assaulted, and murdered.

I’ve been thinking about the glowing reviews that Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine mass murderer Dylan Klebold, received for her New York Times bestseller, A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. “Never, since reading [Klebold’s original essay], have I ever blamed parents for their child’s behavior, especially kids in their teen years,” says one.

And then I think about some of the comments on Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil: The Life, Legacy, and Love of My Son Michael Brown, a book written by his mother, Lezley McFadden. “What a total load of garbage. This is just another attempt by the parent of a criminal thug to capitalize on her dead criminal son’s notoriety,” wrote one.

Klebold’s book outsold McFadden’s on Amazon 45-to-1.

I’ve been thinking about forgiveness, blame, redemption, and race, after watching hours of shaky footage from the now-famous incident at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on Friday, in which students, one in particular, from the all-boys Covington High School in Park Hills, Kentucky appeared to taunt a Native American elder who had been participating in the nearby Indigenous People’s March.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why reasonable people (not trolls or bots) will consider the same event and conclude very different things.

A short video of the encounter went viral triggering a massive online outcry. A MAGA-hatted teen named Nick Sandmann was shown in a standoff with Nathan Phillips and became the focal point of the outrage. Media outlets jumped on the story, and in doing so, may have prevented a full assessment of the event. Many later retreated. An equal and opposite outcry ensued. Sandmann, who has now become the face of the issue, published a statement prepared by a public relations firm, then attempted to make his case on morning television. He meant no disrespect, he said, falling short of an apology.

I’m not sure the additional videos that were later added to provide more context helped all that much. (I’m not going to link to the ones which show the some of the students heckling girls and one making a rape joke.)

This video, posted by Indian Country Today, may be the most helpful context available. It shows a swirling mass of MAGA outfitted boys having fun, behaving a bit like they were in a pep rally, then gleefully returning smirky insults delivered by five members of a provocative group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites. They were annoying, but not dangerous, and the students didn’t seem intimidated by them.

For one thing, the students dramatically outnumbered them.

Then Phillips and his small group approached trying to defuse the back and forth, chanting and banging a drum for peace. The students, who would be perceived by anyone with eyes as a mob, reignited. They continued to beat their chests, laugh, chant, cajole, smirk, shove, and make tomahawk gestures—a little like the type of “boys being boys” behavior that was recently called out in a Gillette commercial, triggering similar outrage.

The students were there to attend the Right To Life March, and the kindest thing I can say is that they appeared utterly unconnected to the mission of their trip and wholly unprepared to do the serious work of engaging in a public conversation about women’s reproductive health.

Perhaps Sandmann is really the face of a different problem.

Adam Howard, an education professor at Colby College and the author of Learning Privilege: Lessons of Power and Identity in Affluent Schooling, tells Vox in a must-read interview, that Sandmann’s smirk has a dark, and familiar-to-many, interpretation. It “communicates that I’m better than you, that I don’t even have enough respect for you to even say anything to communicate.”

But he’s also just a boy who is still figuring things out, a privilege never available to just a boy playing with a toy gun. Or walking home with Skittles. Or listening to music in his car. Or an elder and Veteran who has spent his life and meager resources advocating for the vulnerable and invisible.

Partisan talking points aside, Sandmann is surrounded by a community who so far seems unwilling or unable to do the hard work of unpacking what happened that day, to explore the unearned power of young white men, and reflect on the dynamics of gender, race, and history that played out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. You can’t respect who you can’t see. And you can’t seek redemption you don’t think you need.

Yes, life is trash in the doxxing age. But this isn’t really about that.

It’s about who gets a pass and who doesn’t and why. I believe that Sandmann and his friends think they did nothing wrong. I believe that they could have done better. So, it makes perfect sense that we would reach opposite conclusions from the same video; after all, we live in two different worlds. Theirs is ripe with unfettered opportunity, mine is filled with black and brown bodies who will never be redeemed. In the gulf between those two worlds lies the work.

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