On Wednesday morning, I watched Savannah Guthrie help Nick Sandmann gaslight America into disbelieving its own eyes. I watched the interviewer make no attempts to cut through a mere teenager’s emergency public-relations script. I watched the Today show helpfully allow Sandmann to present himself without his racist uniform on his head.
And, along with nearly every nonwhite American I happen to know, I retched at the whole process. Some white people explaining away the racism of other white people to make white people feel better is a constant feature of the Trump era.
There’s something Promethean about the experience: Minorities are lashed to the rock that is America, MAGA eagles peck at our livers all day, then the next day the media tell us that we have to understand the “true” motivations of the MAGA eagles—and then releases them again to peck at our livers all day.
Even in that context, the Sandmann interview was a special form of crazy-making. I’ve seen the video of Sandmann and his Covington Catholic High School posse. I’ve seen the extended video that includes black people saying mean things to the mob of teens sporting racist haberdashery. I’ve seen the extended-extended clip of the Covington “kids” taunting women. And despite all of the clips and angles, nobody has been able to explain away Nick Sandmann’s blocking access to the Lincoln Memorial to Nathan Phillips, while his buddies laughed and mocked and tomahawk-chopped at a Native American.
It’s that image, indelible in the hippocampus, that Sandmann went on television to dispel. His explanation, repeated a couple of times during the Guthrie interview, was that he “had every right” to stand there.
Guthrie either lacked the core cultural competency to understand she needed to push back on that statement, or simply didn’t care to. But the smirking white boy arguing about his right to “stand his ground” was precisely the time I started screaming obscenities at my television. How dare she let this kid use the George Zimmerman defense? How dare she let this white kid try to rehabilitate his image with the same language that people have used to justify the destruction of black children?
Where is the Savannah Guthrie interview of Trayvon Martin? Where is her interview of Tamir Rice? Where is her interview of Michael Brown? Where is her interview of Laquan McDonald?
Black children don’t get a PR firm and a softball interview when they are in need of redemption. They get an open casket and a good sermon when it’s time to appeal for grace.
Black children have their side of the story too, but they don’t get to go on Today and explain their actions, because they are dead. Their side of the story is left to bleed out in the street long before a compassionate white interviewer calls them for comment. A black teen exercising his right to stand there or walk there or drive there or play there or exist there can be guilty of a capital offense in this country. But a white teenager can block a national freaking monument and get a pat on the head from the president of the United States?
“In hindsight, I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing,” Sandmann told Guthrie. That is as clear a distillation of the white privilege propping up Sandmann as you are likely to see. White children can “walk away.” They can “avoid the whole thing.” And if they don’t, well, they’ll probably live long enough to reflect on their actions “in hindsight.”
As a parent of two black boys, I cannot trust to hindsight. My boys must learn foresight. They must see the danger coming before it fully metastasizes. They must think about it before they purchase the controversial hat, before they get on the protest bus, before they find themselves in the middle of a crowd.
If they’re not prepared, that laughing white boy smirk could be the last thing they see. It’ll be on Nick Sandmann’s face or Brett Kavanaugh’s face or a cop’s face. Savannah Guthrie will not be there to save them or redeem them or make people understand.
I’m a 40-year-old black man. I cannot even conceive of what it must be like to walk around this country with the confidence of a white male teenager. “I had every right to stand there”? I’ve known that statement would be insufficient to justify my public blackness since I was 9.