Posted on May 24, 2021

I’ll Take ‘White Supremacist Hand Gestures’ for $1,000

Ben Smith, New York Times, May 16, 2021

It is an ironclad rule of the private Facebook group of past “Jeopardy!” contestants that nobody post about that night’s episode before 11 p.m. Eastern time, to avoid spoiling the show for West Coast viewers.

So the moderators of the group waited until 11 p.m. sharp on April 27 to reassure the roughly 2,800 fellow members that they had the crisis in hand. They had seen a contestant on that night’s show, a big white guy with a red tie, Kelly Donohue, make an odd gesture with three fingers of his right hand. “Based on the evidence we’ve seen being bandied about elsewhere, there is a real possibility he was giving either a white power or a Three Percenter hand gesture,” wrote one moderator, a middle-school teacher who was on the show about five years ago, according to screenshots provided by another group member. And though “we can’t know his intent,” he continued, “we’re not here to provide safe harbor for white supremacists.”

They weren’t the only ones who noticed the gesture. About 50 viewers had tweeted about it, suggesting variously that it was a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan or of QAnon. And “Jeopardy!” contestants searching Mr. Donohue’s personal Facebook page saw what they considered other, damning evidence, including a picture of Mr. Donohue in a red MAGA hat. One leading member of the group wrote up a public letter. Another emailed the Anti-Defamation League to report the incident.

A full 595 former contestants eventually signed on to the final draft of the letter, asking why “Jeopardy!” hadn’t edited out the moment. It went on to proclaim: “We cannot stand up for hate. We cannot stand next to hate. We cannot stand onstage with something that looks like hate.”

Their statement received wide coverage, particularly in Massachusetts, where Mr. Donohue works as a bank examiner for the state government and the CBS local news called it a “social media firestorm.” A headline on the fact-checking website Snopes got much less attention: “No, ‘Jeopardy!’ Champ Kelly Donohue Didn’t Make the ‘White Power’ Hand Gesture.”


But the “Jeopardy!” story is a remarkable case study for a couple of reasons. First, the participants represent a particular kind of American achievement — the mastery of facts and trivia, celebrated by one of America’s few universally beloved institutions. A turn on “Jeopardy!” is the best credential there is in America. {snip}

And second, Snopes is right. Mr. Donohue’s case is unusually clear-cut, and the allegation is obviously false.


Mr. Donohue’s three fingers, Snopes pointed out, symbolize the number “three.” After his first victory, he waved one finger. After his second victory, he raised two. And after his third, he showed three fingers. He awkwardly folded his index and forefingers into something that looks as if it could be some kind of sign, but doesn’t resemble the “OK” signal that white supremacists have sought to appropriate.

Mr. Donohue had tried to explain himself after the episode aired and accusations of covert white supremacy began turning up on his personal Facebook page. “That’s a 3. No more. No less,” he wrote. “There wasn’t a hidden agenda or any malice behind it.”

His fellow former contestants responded harshly in their letter to his attempt to explain himself. “Most problematic to us as a contestant community is the fact that Kelly has not publicly apologized for the ramifications of the gesture he made,” they wrote. That prompted him to “reject and condemn white supremacy” in a second statement.

{snip} The group had already been roiled by complaints from contestants of color that they were being effectively silenced when other members “blocked” them, meaning the other members couldn’t read their posts. In January, administrators of the Facebook group changed the rules to outlaw blocking. They also made an exception to a ban on talking politics for “human rights.” The discussion of Mr. Donohue fell into that category.

Several members of the group who thought the reaction to Mr. Donohue’s hand was “unhinged,” as a 2020 contestant, Shawn Buell, told me, stayed silent. Mr. Buell said he assumed he would be shouted down. {snip} The letter’s signers defended their position on Mr. Donohue, and Black former contestants questioned whether white former contestants were in a position to judge what was racist.

Then, two weeks later, the group finally heard back from the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights group that is usually quick to call out anything with the faintest smell of bigotry.

“Thank you for reaching out regarding your concern over a Jeapardy [sic] contestant flashing what you believed to be a white power hand signal,” wrote Aaron Ahlquist, of the A.D.L., according to text posted to the group by the contestant who had emailed the group. “We have reviewed the tape and it looks like he is simply holding up three fingers when they say he is a three-time champion. We do not interpret his hand signal to be indicative of any ideology. However, we are grateful to you for raising your concern, and please do not hesitate to contact us in the future should the need arise.”

The A.D.L.’s response provoked fury among former contestants who had signed the letter.

“Is anyone else feeling gaslit?” asked one two-time champion, according to the screenshots. “We saw it. We know we did. But a lot of people (including the goddamned ADL) are telling us we didn’t. That’s some classic gaslighting.”