Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C.

 

Sometimes I write pieces that I know are going to get blasted in the arena of public opinion. I write them anyway and eat the backlash because I believe in the power of the original conversation.

Merriam-Webster defines “race-baiting” as “the making of verbal attacks against members of a racial group.” If I’m going to be accused of something, I want to make sure I have a good definition of it.

Make no mistake, I did not engage in race-bating.

I got accused of it for a piece we published on the opinion page on Jan. 23, entitled “Our View: Lincoln Memorial race incident set us all back.”

The point I made there (and I definitely made a point) was that some of the reaction to a video showing Native American activist Nathan Phillips and white teenager Nick Sandmann standing close together and looking each other in the face on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial drew spirited reactions from people all over the United States. Some of those reactions contained elements of racial tension or race relations.

The reaction to the confrontation became a much larger story than the confrontation itself, which is why the people who write editorials for a newspaper in Missouri would be interested in writing about something that happened in Washington D.C.

If you felt uncomfortable watching the video, that’s good. If you feel uncomfortable talking about or reading about that video, that’s okay. Our natural instinct when we are uncomfortable is to avoid the source of our discomfort, or act to remedy the situation.

The entire situation is unfortunate, but our reactions to it are important. What we feel, how it makes us think, and what we learn from the experience are worth exploring and writing about.

I reached the conclusion no one involved in this story is completely in the right, and everyone involved was at least somewhat in the wrong. Let me be clear, by “everyone,” I mean Nick Sandmann, Nathan Phillips, the crowd of high school boys from Kentucky, the person(s) who stood on the periphery and egged on the situation as they took video with their cell phones, the African Americans who allegedly used racial slurs and other insults, the journalists and news producers in Washington who handled the confrontation locally, the editors and analysts across the globe who offered up their hot takes, and everyone who fired off their opinions on Facebook.

This is a story that journalism professors decades from now will use as a way to illustrate a story where nobody wins, but the story must still be covered. Maybe some positive can still come from it.

Journalists are criticized for sharing stories that incite negative emotions. The story makes people angry and when the reader feels as if they have nowhere to direct their anger, they direct it back to the writer. No reasonable person enjoys feeling bad about themselves and the way they think.

As a small aside, I don’t think Nathan Phillips intended to represent himself as anything other than what he is: a rights activist who unknowingly found himself at the epicenter of an international news event far greater than he could fathom.

News organizations and journalists, myself included, went with a reference that Phillips was a veteran of the Vietnam War. In fact, Phillips served in the U.S. military some time during the Vietnam War, but did not take any deployment to Vietnam during his time in the Marines. Getting that wrong is very regrettable. Organizations that I attributed information about Phillips’ military service to, namely the Washington Post and New York Times, have made corrections to clarify the misrepresentation of Phillips’ service.

Misrepresenting someone’s military service is bad for both the person being misrepresented and for the people who actually did serve in the most hostile and dangerous military entanglements.

I don’t enjoy calling attention to situations where intelligent discussion and civil discourse have suffered an obvious breakdown, be it a situation in my own living room, in my own town or in Washington. Pretending it didn’t happen and ignoring a great opportunity to learn and improve ourselves together isn’t an option either. Most of the time, the learning process is not a comfortable process.

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