Shame on our Catholic and conservative leaders. Many of them joined the cyber-lynching of their own young followers. It’s a sad sign of our times. Overwrought with anxiety about their roles in elite society, they’ll sing any anti-racist tune taken up by the mainstream press, even at the expense of those who look to them for leadership.
Some high school boys took a long bus ride to Washington, D.C., to the March for Life, demonstrating their commitment to the sanctity of life. They were from Covington, Kentucky, a town on the Ohio River that’s seen its share of de-industrialization—Trump country. Some wore MAGA hats, proudly signaling their support for the president.
The March ends. They’re on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, waiting for their bus to return home. A group known as the Black Israelites is nearby, insulting bystanders in a generalized fashion. Their attention falls on the schoolboys. “Get your racist Make America Great Again hats out of here.” “You crackers are traitors.” “All of you have school shooter haircuts.” The boys start chanting school cheers in response. A Native American, Nathan Phillips, approaches them, beating his drum. The kids respond with cheers that make them sound like Florida State football fans. After this episode, the Black Israelites continue their rant and the boys begin to banter with them. Taunts are exchanged. The leader of the Black Israelites gives them a parting shot: “Your president is a homosexual.” Laughter ensues. Evening falls. The boys depart.
I urge folks to view the long video of the encounter. The scenes are heartening, a testimony to the ways in which our crazy-quilt country gets along reasonably well. The Black Israelite street preacher is a well-known American type, haranguing the passersby. A skateboarder with headphones makes an appearance—a more recent figure in our urban landscape. And the schoolboys from Covington are in good spirits, obviously enjoying the opportunity to play their role in the street Kabuki that unfolds.
But as we all know, that’s not what the press reported.
An unknown person posted a short clip of the moment when the Native American activist Nathan Phillips goes face-to-face with the students. The media picked it up, saying that the white teenagers had “mobbed” him. A hate crime! The media seized on this account, promoting a cascade of denunciations.
I can understand why a liberal commentator might jump on this false story. It’s politically useful to depict Trump as a racist who is “dividing” the country. The people who support him are not worthy fellow citizens with concerns about the common good. They, too, are racists and “haters” of one sort or another. The kids from Covington are therefore useful pawns in the ongoing battle to show that the Trump administration is illegitimate, besmirching everything true, good, and beautiful about America.
But I was shocked by how rapidly Catholic and conservative leaders jumped into the denunciation competition, which soon reached Olympic proportions.
Here is the statement from Covington Catholic High School and the diocese of Covington under the leadership of Bishop Roger Foys:
We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students toward Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general, Jan. 18, after the March for Life, in Washington, D.C. We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teaching on the dignity and respect of the human person. The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.
It’s a shocking statement from people who know the young men involved and who are responsible for their flourishing. Before hearing the whole story and determining how events actually unfolded, they too are willing to join the social media stampede. They identify their own young people as potential racists and moral criminals unworthy of membership in their community.
Joseph Kurtz, archbishop of nearby Louisville, added his voice to the chorus of condemnation. “I join with Bishop Foys in condemning the actions of the Covington High School students toward Mr. Nathan Phillips and the Native American Community yesterday in Washington.”
We’re a long way from the spirit of John Hughes, New York’s first archbishop. He was a fierce advocate of the immigrant Catholics under his care, defending them against the condemnations of the Protestant elite. Now we seem to have a Church in which kids who go to parochial schools aren’t protected. Their school principals and bishops prefer to condemn them rather than defend them. If there’s the slightest risk of getting sideways with establishment opinion, they’re thrown under the bus.
And of course there were the conservative pundits and leaders who rushed to add their names to the list of righteous prosecutors. This has been going on since 2016. They are often at the side of liberal elites. White teenage boys with MAGA hats? They’re racists—“deplorables.” That’s how the mainstream narrative trains them to tell the story, which they seem happy to do.
The Covington Catholic affair was small but telling. We are at a difficult juncture. The people who present themselves as mentors and leaders of the kids who were on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial listening to the crazy and fascinating rants of Black Israelites are anxious—too often about themselves and their reputations, not those under their care. They’re beholden to fears that they, too, will be accused of racism. So the rush to defend themselves and their institutions—at the cost of the reputations and wellbeing of the very people they claim to serve.
Of course we should be against racism and other forms of discrimination. But we need to wake up and face reality. In 2019, the rhetoric of anti-racism is used to discredit, destroy, and gain political advantage. It is not a societal norm we can uphold together. Catholic and conservative leaders who think otherwise are kidding themselves.
It’s time to put an end to our complicity in the bigot-baiting racket. It leverages the denunciation of hate crimes, real and imagined, into moral prestige and social standing among the “respectable” and “responsible.” We need to support those whom we mentor, guide, and lead. At the very least we need to remain silent and do no harm when the “respectable” are unleashing their ritual denunciations. We should presume the innocence of ordinary people, not assume their guilt, actively defending them when the facts show they are deliberately targeted and falsely accused.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.