ANALYSIS:

The red-and-white caps embroidered with the campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" are synonymous with President Donald Trump's administration, and have become controversial topic, especially after a racially charged confrontation last week near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Many, including actress and activist Alyssa Milano, called the caps the modern-day white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, representing a white nationalist ideology pushed by the president.

The standoff involved a group of students from Covington Catholic School, an all-boys high school in Kentucky, who were wearing MAGA hats when they got into a confrontation with a Native American man from Ypsilanti, Mich. The Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, said he was trying to defuse the tension between the mostly white students and four members of the fringe religious group the Black Hebrew Israelites, who shouted insults at the students.

Videos of the incident posted to social media whipped up fierce debate about who was right and who was wrong and the role the MAGA hats may have played.

It led some to ask: If the boys hadn't been wearing the MAGA hats, would the confrontation have escalated as it did?

John Pavlovitz, an author, pastor, and activist from North Carolina, said the boys might not have fully understood the loaded meaning those hats carry for some people.

"To be present at that gathering is one thing, but to be present in those hats is a completely different statement," Pavlovitz said. "There's no sense of compassion in those hats to most people, so that hat becomes a threat.

"They are no longer a neutral symbol. Whenever those hats are worn, they're going to make a statement that brings with it many assumptions — a resistance to diversity, a resistance to equality. There's homophobia in the image of those hats that comes automatically when we see them.

"What we see is that all the president's ideals are now sort of wrapped up in that one wearable symbol. No matter what one does, they have to understand that to historically repressed communities or vulnerable communities who now feel more under duress when they see those images," said Pavlovitz, who has drawn millions of readers to his blog, "Stuff that Needs to be Said." His latest book, "Hope and Other Superpowers" ($20, Simon & Schuster), was published in November.

The hats became a staple at Trump rallies and events during his 2016 presidential campaign; they're still sold online through the White House gift shop, where the slogan "Make America Great Again" is printed on caps, swimsuits, banners, playing cards, megaphones and even can insulators. Proceeds benefit his campaign.

The MAGA cap became so well known and synonymous with Trump's 2016 campaign that it was called Symbol of the Year by affiliates of the Stanford Symbolic Systems Program, which, according to its website, focuses on systems and symbols in communication.

A Stanford News Service story about the MAGA hat said it "defined a positional narrative: America was great, is not any more, but could be again," and noted Ronald Reagan first used the "Make America Great Again" slogan during his 1980 campaign for president. Bill Clinton also used the phrase in 1991 in announcing his campaign for president.

Todd Davies, program associate director, told the Stanford News Service: "Lots of things can be symbols but relatively few things actually are. Being a symbol is an acquired status that gets established through use. Symbols can obviously become notable because the things they represent are notable."

Davies told the Free Press that what the MAGA hats represent has changed in the last three years.

"I do think the cultural meaning of MAGA hats has evolved since 2016, and that many people (though not all) see the hat at least partly as a symbol of white nationalism in the U.S.," he said in an email.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, pastor of Detroit's Fellowship Chapel, a trustee on the national NAACP Board of Directors and president of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP, said the MAGA hats send a message that is unquestionably divisive for people of color.

"The caps that the young men were wearing, it is their right, of course, to wear them, but when one says make America great again, what are you talking about?" he said. "When are you talking about, making America great again? What period are you referencing?

"Because in order to make America great again, one has to go backwards. You have to go back to a time period in which America as viewed through the prism of many people was not so great. Are you talking about a period in which Native Americans were beat down and tribes around this nation were demoralized and basically disrupted and destroyed?

"Are you talking about the antebellum period or even before that when black people were enslaved and subservient and had no rights that America was bound to respect?

"Are you talking about the period when the Japanese were put into internment camps? Are you talking about the civil rights period in which Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks sat down so we could stand up? What period are you talking about? It's confusing, and we don't understand that."

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The people who wear the caps, Anthony said, are suggesting — knowingly or unknowingly — that they support all of Trump's policies and his behavior.

"Do you embrace division?" Anthony asked. "In order to wear that hat, you can't just select a part of the man that hat has come to embody. You cannot compartmentalize yourself and say, 'I'm going to embrace the part of him that appears to be strong and tells people where to get off,' without embracing all the other hate and racism and division and derision, and the government shutdown that he proudly owns.

"When you wear that, you're saying that's what you support. So when I see that hat, that's what I see. I see America at its worst, I do not see America at its best."

Eric Castiglia, 49, a Republican from Sterling Heights, said Milano's comments were terrible and that in no way should the MAGA hats ever be compared to KKK hoods.

"Absolutely not," said Castiglia, who is Catholic. "There are so many people in this country that wear that hat, that look to it for inspiration for a fixing a broken system.

"It's not a white hat or a hood over somebody's face. That was the Democratic Party that had a historical connection to the KKK, never the Republican Party affiliated with that group. We are the party of Lincoln."

Many on the left have become so vicious, so vocal when it comes to the conservative viewpoint, Castiglia said, that it has stifled the voices of Trump supporters and Christians.

"You can't support our president in public," Castiglia said. "People will chastise you, ridicule you and lump you into something that you're not just because you believe in some of his policy issues."

As the parent of children who attend Catholic schools, Castiglia said Catholic schoolchildren are taught not to talk back to adults, not to cause a scene or be aggressive.

"So they stood there smiling because what else were they supposed to do?" Castiglia said. "They stood calm. They didn't do anything wrong. ... If that was my son, I would have been proud of him that he didn't push the drum away, that he didn't say a nasty thing, that he just stood there, smiling. I would have been proud of him. They stood strong, peacefully, and they shouldn't have had to back down."

Still, Pavlovitz said it is possible the Covington boys didn't fully understand how politically charged the hats have become.

"Young people when they wear those hats, they might not be aware of how weighted they are," he said. "So, for instance, these high school students might see it as an expression of solidarity with the president or some statement of pride in their country and be unaware of the legacy of hatred in our country, the legacy of white supremacy.

"And really, I think that is a product of their privilege in this case. These are young men who might be largely unaware of the country's past and even of the president's policies, quite honestly."

A youth pastor for 23 years, Pavlovitz said what was most unsettling for him was seeing in the videos how poorly the chaperones handled the situation.

"Students must understand the context of the world in which they're growing up in, and I think that's where you see a failure in this situation," he said.

"These adults understand exactly what that symbolism is and therefore, in a way, they are almost weaponizing the young people in their care, they're almost using them to take a brunt of the message that they want to perpetuate."

Although Trump hasn't commented on the shifting perceptions of what his MAGA hats have come to mean for many Americans, he said in a Twitter post that he supports the Covington Catholic School boys, and the 16-year-old junior at the forefront of the controversy, Nicholas Sandmann.

He wrote: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders condemned the news media for its coverage of the confrontation. "I've never seen people so happy to destroy a kid's life when that becomes the norm in the media in America simply because they're associated with this president," she said on Fox News. That is disgraceful and that should never have happened. Let's hope that this is a lesson to all of the media, to everyone. Let's focus on getting things right not getting them first."

Sandmann said on NBC Wednesday that he did nothing wrong.

"As far as standing there, I had every right to do so. ... My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips," Sandmann said. "I respect him. I'd like to talk to him. I mean, in hindsight, I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing, but I can't say that I'm sorry for listening to him and standing there."

Sandmann said he felt threatened during the confrontation, and said none of the students shouted "build the wall," threats or racial slurs.

"In hindsight, I wish we had just found another spot to wait for our buses, but at the time being positive seemed better than letting them slander us with all of these things. So, I wish we could have walked away."

Phillips said he heard the students shouting "build the wall" as they chanted their school spirit songs. Video shows many of them waving their arms as if using tomahawks, which is considered derogatory. He also said he would like to travel to northern Kentucky to talk to the students about cultural appropriation, racism and respecting diverse cultures.

Anthony said if anything positive comes from this, it's that it's driving a national conversation about an uncomfortable issue.

"People of good will — black, white, red, yellow — have to take the bull by the horns. We have to seize upon the moment. We have to preach from our churches, our synagogues, our mosques, our temples.

"We have to say to each other that ... we all have a significant purpose here and that we must respect our brothers and sisters for our differences because diversity is a good thing. ... Our nation's strength is in its diversity, not in its uniformity."

Anthony commended Phillips for offering to meet with students from Covington Catholic.

"I think that's powerful," he said.

When asked whether the MAGA hats have a role in America in 2019, Anthony said, simply: "I think the hat has a place. The place for it is in a museum."

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