I wouldn’t want one in my yard, but a Donald Trump campaign sign isn’t a universally understood symbol for hate. Not yet.
Symbolic meanings can change, however. The inverted cross used to be the personal signature of Saint Peter, and now it represents Satanism. Skinheads were originally British hipsters who liked black music. Guy Fawkes wasn’t an anarchist. The list goes on.
Symbols are abstractions. They get their meaning from how they are used.
And so we have the peculiar usage of a Trump-Pence campaign sign at a high school basketball game in the Kansas City area. The combatants were Center High from the Kansas City School District, which has no white players on its varsity roster, and Warrensburg High, located in a predominately white community about an hour east of the city.
During pregame introductions, the Warrensburg student section turned its back on the opposing team, as it does every game. The administration at Warrensburg considers this unsportsmanlike and would prefer its students not do it, but it didn’t really become a problem until Monday night, when a student held up a Trump campaign sign during the turn, and all hell broke loose on Facebook.
The kid who held up the sign hasn’t been heard from publicly, so the sign’s meaning to that particular student is a matter of conjecture. Considering the circumstances, it’s easy to understand why somebody on the Center side would have felt disrespected, especially if they didn’t know about the back-turning tradition. There is nothing inherently racist about bananas or gorillas, either, but high school basketball fans have managed to deploy them racistly, anyway.
This is a different sort of situation from when Emory students saw Trump’s name in sidewalk chalk and were so traumatized the school offered emergency counseling. That was just conventional political speech, carried out before a presidential election. This situation in Kansas City is also political speech, but it has a different context and a different audience, and therefore a different meaning.
It deserves mentioning, again, that we are talking here about the campaign sign of the president-elect of the United States being held up by a single student during a high school basketball game. That could mean a few different things, but one thing it definitely doesn’t mean is that everybody at Warrensburg is a racist or that Warrensburg High is racist as an institution.
Speaking to the Kansas City Star, Warrensburg superintendent Scott Patrick apologized to Center High School for the sign.
“I think in this case, (the Trump sign) was really the difference in what took this from something that was unsportsmanlike to something that was insensitive, not necessary and inappropriate.”