As the ESPN broadcaster Rece Davis, in civilian clothes, spoke on the air during pregame activities at the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia on Saturday, some cadets and midshipmen behind him made a gesture that has come to be linked to white supremacist views.
Touching the thumb and index finger to make a circle, with the remaining three fingers held outstretched, is a gesture that people around the world have made for centuries, mostly in positive contexts.
It is used for several purposes in sign languages, and in yoga as a symbol to demonstrate inner perfection. It figures in an innocuous made-you-look game. Most of all, it has been commonly used for generations to signal “O.K.,” or all is well.
But in recent years, it has also been appropriated for a more malign purpose — to signify “white power.” The gesture has become an extremist meme, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Now, officials at West Point and Annapolis are investigating whether cadets and midshipmen who made the sign with their hands during television coverage of the Army-Navy football game on Saturday were doing so to express racist sentiments.
Here is how the hand gesture became a fraught one.
Where did the sign come from?
The widely understood modern use of the gesture for approval or assent seems to have arisen along with the term “O.K.” in the 19th century. Some researchers have traced the word to 1839, when Charles Gordon Greene wrote jokingly in The Boston Morning Post about it being an intentionally misspelled abbreviation for “all correct.” The term caught on, and the hand gesture, with the fingers forming something vaguely like an O and a K, became closely linked with it.
A man wearing a Pepe the Frog mask made a hand signal understood to signify “white power” as members and supporters of the Proud Boys, a far-right group, shouted at opponents after a rally in Washington in July.
Dave Sanders for The New York Times
How did it become connected to “white power”?
It started in early 2017 as a hoax. Some users of 4chan, an anonymous and unrestricted online message board, began what they called “Operation O-KKK,” to see if they could trick the wider world — and especially liberals and the mainstream media — into believing that the innocuous gesture was actually a clandestine symbol of white power.
“We must flood twitter and other social media websites with spam, claiming that the OK hand signal is a symbol of white supremacy,” one of the users posted, going on to suggest that everyone involved create fake social media accounts “with basic white girl names” to propagate the notion as widely as possible.
The 4chan hoax succeeded all too well, and ceased being a hoax: Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and other white nationalists began using the gesture in public to signal their presence and to spot potential sympathizers and recruits. For them, the letters formed by the hand were not O and K, but W and P, for “white power.”
The gesture is not the only symbol to have been appropriated and swiftly weaponized by alt-right internet trolls. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified memes featuring the hoax religion of Kek and the cartoon character Pepe the Frog, among others, as being at the forefront of white nationalists’ efforts to distract and infuriate liberals.
Where else has the gesture surfaced?
A number of high-profile figures on the far right have helped spread the gesture’s racist connotation by flashing it conspicuously in public, including Milo Yiannopolous, an outspoken former Breitbart editor, and Richard B. Spencer, one of the promoters of the white power rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 that resulted in the death of a 32-year-old woman.
The gesture was in the headlines again after Roger Stone, a longtime political adviser to President Trump, met with a group of white nationalists known as the Proud Boys in Salem, Ore., in 2018 and was photographed displaying it with them.
Critics expressed outrage when a former White House aide, Zina Bash, appeared to be flashing the sign as she sat behind Brett M. Kavanaugh during his televised Senate confirmation hearings for his appointment to the Supreme Court. Defenders of Ms. Bash insisted that she had not intended any racist connotation and was merely signaling O.K. to someone.
That the gesture has migrated beyond ironic trolling culture to become a “sincere expression of white supremacy,” according to the Anti-Defamation League, could be seen in March 2019 when Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist accused of killing 50 people in back-to-back mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, smiled and flashed the sign to reporters at a court hearing on his case.
Some people who have used the gesture publicly in a way that seemed to suggest support for racist views have faced consequences. In 2018, the United States Coast Guard suspended an officer who appeared to use the sign on camera during an MSNBC broadcast. Later that year, four police officers in Jasper, Ala., were suspended after a photo was published showing them flashing the sign below the waist. And over the summer, a baseball fan was barred indefinitely from Wrigley Field in Chicago after making the gesture behind the NBC sports commentator Doug Glanville during a broadcast of a Cubs game.
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