Black­face ex­poses racism’s deep roots

In time of height­ened ten­sions, rev­e­la­tions have touched a nerve

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Jes­sica Guynn and Mon­ica Rhor

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.”

STEVE HELBER/AP

Demon­stra­tors de­mand an apol­ogy and the res­ig­na­tion of Ralph Northam out­side the Vir­ginia Gov­er­nor’s Man­sion this month in Richmond.

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