An unnamed teen stands face-to-face with Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder, as he chanted and played the drums after the Indigenous Peoples March on Friday.
Video shows different side of controversial viral video
03:57 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey was the 2016 James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow and is the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South” (Other Press). Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

It matters that they wore “Make America Great Again” hats.

Issac Bailey

I’m talking about those high school kids in the video that went viral over the weekend, the one that showed the young men laughing and jeering while an older American Indian man drummed and sang. It seemed at first to be an obvious case of white bros acting shamefully, but then another, longer video showed the same encounter with more context and new characters – a racist fringe group of black men, who identify as members of the Hebrew Israelites, and who seemed to have been the main provokers of tension and aggression.

This twist in the story gave the whole country a case of interpretive whiplash, feeding frenzied new rounds of argument over who the real victims were, and who was being disgraceful to whom.

But that’s a pointless debate. Based on independent reporting, those students should share in the blame, despite their denials stating they were innocent bystanders.

The Native American protester could have inadvertently made things worse even if he was sincerely trying to calm things. The Hebrew Israelites hurled insults at just about everyone who crossed their path. We can even ask why there weren’t more adult chaperones to counsel those students to do the only sensible thing: shut up and walk away. That would have shown real courage and wisdom.

Have at it. Choose whichever facts that will fuel your outrage. But I won’t get involved in that because the debate threatens to obscure a broader, more important truth, that we are living through what feels like a “back to the back of the bus” moment for many people of color.

That’s why those MAGA hats matter.

That’s why it matters that they were young white men representing the Christian faith supposedly for a march to emphasis the sanctity of all life – while wearing those hats.

It matters that this occurred under a President who won his office by openly spouting bigoted rhetoric, who kicked off his campaign saying Mexican immigrants were rapists and bringing crime, after spending several years spreading the bigoted conspiracy that the first black President wasn’t fully American, and who defended white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, as good people.

That context cannot be divorced from the image of the MAGA hat any more than the Confederate flag can be divorced from the brutality of chattel slavery. And yet, every Donald Trump apologist will try to say otherwise – that it’s just a hat, or that it is worn by different people for different reasons. How do I know? Because I’ve listened to similar excuses in my native South Carolina about those who wear or fly the Confederate flag. They do so to honor their ancestors, I’ve been told, or to embrace Southern heritage, or because they are exercising their First Amendment rights.

The MAGA hat, like the Confederate flag, wouldn’t elicit outraged reactions if it were only a piece of cloth that harkened back to bygone days never to be relived. But it isn’t. It is a signifier for those who believe America was great during some point in the past they dare not name, knowing if they do, it would reveal a time when it was worse for people of color. When was America “great”? When millions of black people were slaves? When hundreds of thousands of black men were sold to US companies via convict leasing? Maybe during the heart of Jim Crow, the height of lynching, or when black people struggling with drug addictions were viewed as criminals to be controlled, not fellow human beings needing help?

The Confederate flag wouldn’t elicit such outrage if that flag didn’t fly on statehouse lawns and in statehouse buildings and in other public spaces for so many decades, even into the 21st century. But it did, and does. That MAGA hat wouldn’t elicit such outrage if Trump were just a man who used bigotry for his own ends, and a reality TV star instead of President of the United States. But he is President of the United States.

That truth was underscored by this past weekend’s events, which seemed to have begun with a verbal confrontation between white students from a Southern Christian school and a small group of black men most Americans never heard of. The difference between the two: those students represented the demographic that most strongly supports Trump – a man who had the power to essentially steal people’s children at the border without knowing whether they would ever be returned to their families – while the group of black protesters constituted literal street preachers shouting into the wind.

There’s no way to sensibly defend the Hebrew Israelites. Their ugliness fanned the flames that became a storm this past weekend. Still, there’s an important element to the relative power represented by the Hebrew Israelites and the students from that mostly-white Catholic high school. Only one of them supports a man who has both spouted hate-filled language and has the power to roll back Obama-era oversight of law enforcement to curtail police brutality and unwanted shootings – and that’s the one those students chose to proudly align with.

That matters.