It’s difficult to keep up with the roiling fallout from the standoff between high schooler Nick Sandmann and Native elder Nathan Phillips near the Lincoln Memorial last Friday.
We need to take a collective breath, peal away the perceived complexity of the story, and get down to a basic question: Why is it so hard to apologize?
The latest chapter in the saga was Sandmann’s nationally broadcast interview on the Today Show.
A quick reset: Sandmann and his mostly white classmates from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky were in D.C. for the anti-abortion “March for Life” rally. Phillips was in town for the Indigenous Peoples March. Both marches ended near the Lincoln Memorial. According to news accounts, a nearby group of Black Hebrew Israelites stirred emotions by hurling racial insults at both groups. Phillips said he started playing his drum and singing to try to ease tensions, walking in between the two groups. The high schoolers, apparently rattled by the racial conflict, responded to Phillips in a disrespectful way — tomahawk chops and ugly comments.
Video of Friday’s standoff showed some students, including Sandmann, wearing pro-Trump MAGA hats. It’s become clear over the past two years that in President Trump’s America, apologies are seen as a sign of weakness. Sandmann seems to have adopted Trump’s stance on apologies, along with his hat.
Key Takeaways from the Interview
In the Today Show interview, Sandmann was defensive and claimed his right to stand his ground rather than show some humility.
In fairness to Sandmann, he’s young and was and ill prepared to be in the national spotlight. The adults in his life did him a disservice letting him go on TV.
Newscaster Savannah Guthrie has taken heat over the interview. (See The Hill’s story: NBC’s Guthrie slammed by left, right over interview with Covington student Sandmann.)
Here are some of the key exchanges.
Guthrie asked Sandmann: “Do you feel from this experience that you owe anyone an apology?”
Sandmann: “As far as standing there, I had every right to do so. … My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him. I’d like to talk to him. In hindsight, I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing. But I can’t say that I am sorry for listening to him and standing there.”
Comment: No olive branch here. Sandmann framed his answers around personal rights. It shouldn’t have been that hard to apologize.
According to the interview, Sandmann was confused about why Phillips was playing his drum. (The students had begun school chants to drowned out the insults from the Black Hebrew Israelites. Sandmann said he thought Phillips might be trying to drum with the school chants.)
With hindsight, Phillips could have acknowledged the “Tomahawk chop” gestures by his classmates were offensive and that Phillips could have felt intimidated being surrounded by the chanting crowd. Most importantly, Sandmann knew Phillips stated intent was to diffuse the racial tension. Sandmann could at least have expressed gratitude to Phillips for his good intentions and for taking the risk to step in and help.
Further, Sandmann’s statement that “I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips” assumes he alone has the right to decide what is disrespectful; he shows no curiosity about how Phillips felt.
Guthrie also asked Sandmann about the central controversy of the exchange — his perceived smirk as he stood in front of Phillips.
Sandmann responded: “I see it [the smirk] as a smile, saying that: ‘This is going to be the best you [Phillips] are going to get out of me. You won’t get any further reaction of aggression. And I am willing to stand here as long as you want to hit this drum in my face.'”
Comment: If it was a smile, it was a defiant smile, not a friendly one. Sandmann apparently saw Phillips as a threat. He perceived Phillips was trying to provoke him into an angry response. Sandmann perceived Phillips was there “to hit this drum in my face.” He didn’t acknowledge, and implicitly rejected, Phillips’ explanation that he was there to be a peacemaker.
This conflicts with Sandmann’s earlier statement that he was standing in front of Phillips to listen to him. It doesn’t seem Sandmann was listening at all. Sandmann was there because he thought that Phillips was provoking him to anger. It was a me-against-you moment; Sandmann wanted to show Phillips he was too strong to be provoked.
Why is it so hard to apologize? In this case, Sandmann seems to have a fixed story — Phillips was there to make people angry. Until he has enough humility to question whether that story is true, there can never be a human connection, apology, or healing.