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The Presumption of White Male Innocence in the Face of All Available Evidence


Byron Tau’s supremely unfortunate tweet, responding to the footage of a student at Covington Catholic High School jeering and mocking Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder, with cries of “Build the Wall!” by asking, essentially, “who among us wasn’t really racist as a teenager?”, has met with some gratifyingly decisive responses. I want to highlight this thread, by Michael, a disabled, Native American teen reflecting on their own history of high school bullying. The whole thing is worth reading, but this segment, it seems to me, is what’s at the core of this conversation:

Contrary to the perception—perpetuated by people like Tau—of the CCHS students in the video as misguided, Michael describes abusers who cynically take advantage of this perception, feigning incomprehension and good intentions as a calculated tactic. And why shouldn’t they? This is hardly the first time that behavior like this has been met with the automatic assumption that people engaging in it must be ignorant or unaware of the damage they’re causing. Any moderately-intelligent sociopath who answers the prerequisites of being white (definitely), male (usually but not necessarily), and middle class or higher (more often than not, in my experience) would very quickly learn that pretending not to have known any better is a veritable get out of jail free card.

The problem (well, one of the problems) is that far too many people are willing to see behavior like the one in the video as existing on a reasonable spectrum with other forms of teenage awfulness, when in fact it is, at best, so far to the extreme end that the generalization is deeply damaging. Not that being a teenager is necessary for this dynamic. We saw the same poisonous attitude at work during the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, or after the discovery of the pussy tape. People who wouldn’t in a million years behave that way themselves are nevertheless deeply invested in the fallacy that it is possible to simply slide, in misguided innocence, into this sort of behavior, as opposed to it being a conscious, deliberate, knowing choice (not to mention, the culmination of a long process, rather than the first step).

Does this mean that the kids in the video are beyond redemption? In the abstract, of course not. In this particular case, I don’t know. More crucially, I don’t care, because the more salient fact is that they almost certainly won’t try. Why would they? Not only are their school and families hotbeds of the kind of racism they expressed towards Nathan Phillips, but the media has immediately rallied to offer them a way out in the form of pleading youthful ignorance. They’re being offered field trips where the people they hurled abuse at are expected to teach them what their parents and teachers failed to—or rather, didn’t even try to. What, exactly, is the motivation here for change?

For the most part, people don’t get better because they want to be better. They get better because being bad has negative consequences. And when it comes to white men of a certain class, those consequences simply don’t exist. Instead there is a narrative of innocence that is impervious to all common sense and contrary evidence, to everything in our experience that tells us that a person, even if they’re a teenager, doesn’t just fall into shouting “Build the Wall!” at a man old enough to be their grandfather. I don’t know what the solution is to the problem exemplified in this video, for either the boys themselves or society as a whole. But I do know that ignoring the actual parameters of the problem is not it.

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