The shadow of President Lincoln’s massive memorial in DC has historically been home to gatherings of social justice and progress. However, on January 18th, the historic memorial was the stage to an incident between a group of students and a Native American elder that would quickly spark national outcry. Students from an all-male, catholic high school surround an older Native American man, laughing and chanting “build the wall”. This setting led to an image that has rapidly become viral. A student in a “Make America Great Again” hat smirking inches away from elder and veteran Nathan Phillips as he beats a prayer to God on his drum.
The photo now joins other images have become iconic in our nation’s ongoing struggle with race. Often, it is imagery that provides the greatest advances in this discussion. This image captures a familiar story in America’s conversation about race: entitlement. This image argues the ongoing battle isn’t about protecting the country from migrants but rather about protecting white people from consequences.
Race in America is the unfinished business of our democracy. Photos show these wounds are still real and deep, visual symbolism remains one of the most powerful forces in a discussion of race. Key moments in race relations have been sparked by photographs. The photograph of Emmett Till in Jet Magazine helped spark the civil rights movement (Brown). Dorothy Counts bravely walking into an integrated school followed by hateful students continued the movement for civil rights. In 1976, “the soiling of Old Glory”, a photo of a white man attacking a black man with the American flag fueled the Boston busing crisis.
So many of these photos show expressions that are no different than the emotion smirking Nick Sandmann has on his face. Whether the year be 1955, 1956, 1976, or 2019, the expression is consistent through sixty-four years of photographs. The expression is universal. It is essential to the story behind them. Sandmann’s Smirking, amused expression puts a face to white privilege. It shows years of white people rarely suffering consequences, enjoying years of second chances and never getting arrested. Sandmann’s smirk is recognizable to anyone who has suffered oppression. Smirking inches away from the elder, who is pictured as passive, appears to the public as mockery. Surrounding the staredown is a circle of other smirking, laughing, and “MAGA” hats adorning teens. The overwhelming contrast in numbers appears to give the advantage to the white students over the elder. A truth in both this meeting and in American society.
If a picture says a thousand words, then the words chanted in the picture say double that. Phillips later told reporters the gaping mouths in the picture were chanting “build that wall, build that wall” (Paris). The phrase has evolved from a trademark promise of President Trump’s campaign. Racism and hatred is masked by false claims that the promised wall across the southern border is truly about border security. White people chanting “build that wall” to Native Americans, makes the true purpose more transparent than ever. To Sandmann, and millions of other Americans the wall is about protecting white people from accountability. Phillips continued on to say, “This is indigenous lands. You know we’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did, for millenniums, before anyone else came here. We never had walls.” (Paris). The words the students chant and their Make America Great Again hats clarify their purpose.
In this photograph, there is a stark contrast of ages. With youth, come innocence. The younger ages of the students, all appearing to be in their teens, appeals to pathos in people. Parents across the nation will see these rosy-cheeked teens with pity. Further, people will be encouraged to think back to their own childhoods and mistakes they made. Society tends to protect youth and its innocence. Society’s protection of youth is tenfold for the innocence of white children. This reflective, “benefit of the doubt” response is characteristic of when white children get into trouble. This response is detrimental to society. It is the reason why Brett Kavanaugh can be a Supreme Court judge. It is the reason why these teens will go back to their high school and get a chance to speak out on the Today show. However, youth also represents ignorance and half-formed opinions. The youthful faces of the teens are in contrast to the aged and wizened face of the Native American elder. In the case of the elder, age provides credibility and the wisdom of past experiences. The elder’s calm and passive behavior is evidence of experience with encounters like this. His pictured behavior is a familiar sight to minorities who have endured torment for years.
One hundred fifty five years ago, President Lincoln gave America’s conversation about race a larger platform. This confrontation between two sides of America symbolically occured right at Lincoln’s feet. The location is significant in amplifying how divided both groups in the picture are. Further, having it be on such a national stage. Location is a central factor behind the importance of this factor and it going viral. The purpose of both respective parties for being there has affected the public’s response to it. The media has reported that the students were in the Nation’s Capital on a school trip to the March for Life while Nathan Phillips attended the Indigenous Peoples march (Sidner). Opinion on these events creates a bias for the person viewing the image.
Some claim the photographs intention is to portray the students badly. They argue that one photograph cannot fully depict the entire event. Additionally, they deny claims about Sandmann’s body language (Wilson). Sandmann himself insists his behavior was not mocking but rather peaceful. He states: “I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to defuse the situation,” Sandmann said. “I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict.”(Ortiz). Phillips’ account does not agree with the students. The contrasting stories prompted the release of photos and videos from various angles, all telling roughly the same story. This creates the question of intention of these photos. The composition of the photograph is what makes it most powerful. Had the subjects been photographed from a different angle, the initial meaning of the photo would greatly change. Photography is a catalyst to revolutions. It is one of the most powerful tools journalists have and comes with a great responsibility to them. It is because of their power to evoke emotion, create conversation, and argue that they are beneficial to society. As one of American writer Anne Lamott’s most famous quotes says “if people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better”. Perhaps the best quote to live by in these situations.
It has been said that race is the unfinished business of the American democracy. The divides we have were on clear display in this photo, just as they were in so many before it. One can hope that on the spot where Martin Luther King made his “I have a Dream” speech we will someday see that dream come true, and a new visual image will emerge of the nation truly living as one. That’s what America being great looks like.
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