The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
When did we become so merciless? I’m not talking about the 18-year-old kid, featured in a New York Times article, who elected to torpedo a fellow student over a three-year-old video clip—though what he did was cruel. No, I’m talking about all of the supposed adults who created the world these kids navigate through. That includes editors of the Times, officials at the University of Tennessee, and thousands of online voyeurs who threw aside compassion and judgment.
The outline of the story is as follows: Mimi Groves, a 15-year-old high school freshman in Leesburg, Virginia, posted a Snapchat video when she got her learner’s permit. Speaking into the camera, she said “I can drive, n—–.”
Whoa. Who uses the n-word like that? We’ll come to that. The video circulated among a few people and was forgotten. Three years later, it surfaced again, this time coming to the attention of a classmate, Jimmy Galligan, who filed it away. Later, after Mimi Groves had been accepted to her dream college, the University of Tennessee, and welcomed onto the cheerleading team (apparently the national champion), Galligan released the three-second video.
It was May 2020. The furor following the death of George Floyd was erupting nationwide. Groves, the Times reports, urged her Instagram followers to “protest, donate, sign a petition, rally, do something” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Her first hint of the deluge to come was a comment from a stranger, saying “You have the audacity to post this, after saying the N-word.” Galligan’s little time bomb had exploded on Snapchat, Tik Tok, and Twitter. Within hours, the University of Tennessee was fielding calls demanding that they rescind their acceptance of Groves. The cheerleading team acted first, dismissing her. The call from the admissions office followed within a couple of days. The angry parents, alumni, and public must be placated, an administrator explained. Groves was out.
Nowhere in the New York Times story is there any indication that this young woman, now 19, has ever been known as a racist. A black friend told the Times that Groves had apologized for the video long before it became public. With the exception of that 3-second video, she had no history of racist posts on social media, associations with racist organizations, or complaints against her at school. Here’s what Mimi Groves told the Times: “At the time, I didn’t understand the severity of the word, or the history and context behind it because I was so young,” adding that the slur was in “all the songs we listened to, and I’m not using that as an excuse.” She said “it honestly disgusts me that those words would come out of my mouth.”
She isn’t using song lyrics as an excuse, but really, couldn’t the adults have had a little perspective here about a 15-year-old? Hip hop is all the rage and not just for black kids but for teenagers the world over. So if a young girl tries to be cool by using the word that pop stars use, well, it’s a mistake, but is it a crime? It takes time to learn the complex etiquette that governs racial matters. Comedian Trevor Noah felt the need to explain the choreography to his fans:
Some people need to say to themselves, ‘I grew up with hip hop. I may have identified with black culture. But I also understand that I’m not black or I have not lived the black experience. There’s something that comes with that.’ Whereas black people, we go… the one perk to the oppression is getting the N-word. In a weird way.
Noah even suggested that rap artists release two versions of their songs. One for black people who are allowed to use the N-word, and another for everyone else. “They should just make like another version, like a non-black people version that everyone can rap along to [where] they find an alternative word.”
Rapper Kendrick Lamar paused a concert in 2018 when he invited a white fan onstage to sing “m.A.A.d city.” with him. Apparently, she sang the N-word too. “You gotta bleep one single word,” he corrected her. And on they went. No harm, no foul. And that was an adult.
Jimmy Galligan seems to have no regrets. The child of a black mother and a white father, he reports that he felt the sting of racism growing up. It’s not for us to question that. But he never says that Mimi Groves was the source of it. Does that not matter? Is she to be branded for life for one stupid comment? Galligan, a freshman at Vanguard University, told the Times “with satisfaction” that he had “taught someone a lesson.” Well, maybe the wrong someone?
This isn’t just a story about kids behaving badly (both of them). It’s much more a story of adults who’ve lost their bearings. Galligan should not be able to inflict such a disproportionate punishment on Groves for a years-old infraction. And he wouldn’t have had the power to do so without the dereliction of the adults up and down the line. The parents, alumni, coaches, and others at the University of Tennessee who issued a summary judgment on Groves—declining to speak to her teachers, coaches, or friends—are betraying their duty to act with fairness and to demonstrate a grown-ups’ understanding. And every adult who participated in this social media auto-da-fe is guilty too.
The New York Times should not have memorialized this episode of youthful folly. Anyone who has ever been 18 can imagine that the day will come when Galligan deeply regrets his conduct toward Groves. We know that Groves already regrets her three-year-old slip. But now, their lapses are public property. They are not human beings, but symbols. Adults have robbed them of the chance to mature in peace—which isn’t surprising, since the adults never matured themselves.