Blackface exposes racism’s deep roots
In time of heightened tensions, revelations have touched a nerve
Coming at a time of heightened racial tensions, revelations about the past racist behavior by Virginia’s governor, attorney general and a top state senator have touched a raw nerve.
Much of the public discussion has been focused on the individual. On their intention. Their remorse (or lack thereof). Their possible path to redemption.
That’s where the discussion usually stops.
“Fundamentally, people don’t understand the rootedness of anti-blackness in American culture,” says Jeannette Eileen Jones, associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
A week after troubling images of a person wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood surfaced on the medical school yearbook page of Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, the firestorm in Virginia shows few signs of abating.
Attorney General Mark Herring also faces calls to resign after admitting he darkened his face in college to dress up as an African-American performer he admired. Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, one of Virginia’s most powerful Republicans, defended his role as an editor at college yearbook that featured racist words and images.
All three offered apologies, but none sees himself as racist.
Northam said he wore blackface to dress as Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984, and at a news conference, he appeared on the verge of demonstrating the moonwalk before being restrained by his wife. Norment told The Virginian-Pilot that he was just one of seven yearbook editors.
“I was kind of the first sergeant,” he said. “I’m still culpable, but it is by association with a team that produced that yearbook with those photos.”
In Florida, Michael Ertel, the GOP secretary of state, resigned the same day that photos of him posing as a Hurricane Katrina victim in blackface at a private Halloween party in 2005 were made public. He said he is a better man today and blamed his troubles on someone from his past exacting revenge.
Promoting a movie last week, actor Liam Neeson, star of the “Taken” franchise, confessed that 40 years ago, he armed himself with a bludgeon and angrily roamed the streets in search of a black man to avenge a friend’s sexual assault. He insisted in a subsequent interview that he is not racist.
Scholars of critical race theory say that being white grants these men the privilege to judge for themselves whether they’ve displayed contempt or bias toward another race.
“That’s like us imagining that an individual has the ability to diagnose a disease,” says Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University and author of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” “People are not trained to diagnose their own racism. People are only trained to deny their own racism.”
In a fraught political climate, antiblack incidents are on the rise. Reported hate crimes in America increased 17 percent last year, according to the FBI, the third straight year that such crimes increased. Of the more than 7,000 incidents reported last year, 2,013 targeted African Americans.
Incidents of racial bullying in K-12 schools are also growing. Last April, the Utah chapter of the NAACP called for schools to address incidents in which white students were using racial slurs against black students. A student in Los Angeles and another in Missouri last year turned up at school in KKK costumes for school projects.
John Powell, who leads the UCBerkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, draws a straight line to the inflammatory rhetoric and polices of the Trump administration.
“What used to be at the fringe is becoming mainstream, and it’s creating new norms,” he says. “That’s why we’ve seen an uptick in racist incidents and more subtle expressions of racism and racial dominance.”
People of all races harbor racist ideas and beliefs, scholars say, but they are so immersed in a system that systematically favors whites, they are unable to distinguish between what’s racist and what’s not.
Some people reject the idea that blackface – a relic of entertainment from the 19th century rooted in the mimicry and mocking of slaves – is racist.
A majority of Americans – 56 percent – and 88 percent of Democrats say the practice is unacceptable for a white person, but 29 percent of Republicans and 30 percent of Trump voters disagree, according to a survey from The Economist/YouGov.
Though important, the focus on blatant and egregious expressions of racism – burning crosses, the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, hurling epithets – draws needed attention away from the more insidious forms of racism and structural inequities that plague American society, says Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke University sociology professor.
“We notice blackface. We notice someone wearing a white hood or using the N-word, because those belong to a racist past,” says Bonilla-Silva, author of “Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America.”
What often isn’t discussed, he says, are the everyday conditions that reinforce racial inequality: African-Americans being racially profiled in stores or by the police or being turned down for jobs.
“This moment could allow for a conversation about how we all participate in various ways in the racist order, but it can also then make invisible the most prevalent forms of racial exclusion, discrimination and thinking,” Bonilla-Silva says.
George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University and author of “Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America,” says a deeper examination of the undercurrents of privilege and race in our society is unlikely to follow.
“The representation of blackness as dangerous, inferior, as buffoonery and aesthetically ugly continues to exist in every nook and cranny of white America,” he says. “Until white Americans develop the stomach, the capacity to begin to admit the ways in which racism continues to exist in them, both consciously and unconsciously, this moment will be just another racist incident we talk about for about a week and then move on.”
Demonstrators demand an apology and the resignation of Ralph Northam outside the Virginia Governor’s Mansion this month in Richmond.