I’m about two years older than Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, 59, and I’ve never put on blackface makeup – not as a high school or college student, not as a young adult, not ever.
Neither have any of my friends to my knowledge. And I’ve never been to a costume party where someone came in blackface.
Not that I’ve always been ostentatiously enlightened on the subject. I can’t remember having a conversation or even giving it any thought in the mid-1980s – when, as we’ve learned, Northam used shoe polish to darken his white skin thinking it would be entertaining – about how poisonous and offensive blackface is to African-Americans.
Yes, the subject was occasionally in the news back then. African-American actor and dancer Ben Vereen raised eyebrows and a bit of ire when he performed in blackface at the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan, with the anger magnified because the portion of his act that highlighted the connection between blackface and racist exploitation of blacks was not included in the TV broadcast.
White students who wore blackface makeup to a 1982 “Ghetto Function” fraternity party at an Oregon university avoided suspension by participating in a cultural awareness program, according to another story from the archives. A police officer in Baltimore was consigned to desk duty for having an off-hours gig where he put on blackface and performed as Al Jolson.
The Chicago Tribune barely mentioned the subject in the early ’80s, and most of the references in the New York Times were mild asides in the paper’s arts coverage – a 1981 dramatic review noted that the blackface was “unevenly and inexpertly applied,” while a 1982 review of a ballet performance observed that the use of blackface “recalls a sensibility no longer valid.”
In 1986, Hollywood released “Soul Man,” a feature-length comedy about a white man who darkens his skin to receive a law school scholarship reserved for black students.
Meanwhile, a former Ku Klux Klan officer – Robert Byrd of West Virginia – was the highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, while the highest ranking Republican was South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, who’d run for president in 1948 railing against the admission of “the negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
This was the cultural milieu in which Northam decided it would be a good idea to blacken up in order to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest (he now denies being in the 1984 medical school yearbook photo on his page that shows one person in blackface and another in a Klansman’s hood).
Those calling for Northam’s resignation who indignantly note that his offense occurred in 1984, not 1954, are romanticizing how woke the public was in 1984.
I’m inclined to chalk up Northam’s decision to obliviousness rather than racism, particularly in light of his public record on race in the intervening 35 years, which even most of his African-American critics concede has been exemplary.
It is an obliviousness rooted in white privilege conferred by systemic racism, to be sure. And it often manifests itself as insensitivity – hence the ongoing need for cultural-awareness initiatives. Those who do not live as African-Americans, American Indians, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, LGBTQ people or other minorities can be poor judges of what’s amusing to them or what they will take as compliments.
And ask any woman you know about manifestations of male privilege.
Entertainers in blackface ridiculed and often infantilized African-Americans and perpetuated their subjugation. This history is so toxic that intent can never justify its use, as actor Ted Danson learned when he was widely vilified for attempting to honor his then-girlfriend, African-American star Whoopi Goldberg, by wearing blackface for a skit in 1993.
But Danson has been allowed to return to respectability, as has Billy Crystal, who came under fire for darkening his face to imitate Sammy Davis Jr. for a bit at the 2012 Academy Awards show.
And so – given his expressions of remorse and lack of evidence of similar misdeeds in the intervening 35 years – should Northam. Even given his bizarre performance at Saturday’s news conference and the strange evolution of his story about the Klansman photo, he’s entitled to the forgiveness and second chance he’s asked for.
Yes, he inadvertently and retrospectively caused pain to African-Americans by thoughtlessly wearing blackface in the mid-1980s. But if he has to resign for that, so should every politician of either party who supports holidays and public displays that honor the Confederacy, honors that cause ongoing pain to African-Americans.
So should Republicans who aren’t calling for the resignation of white supremacist U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and of avowed female-genital-grabbing President Donald Trump.
The public is likely to realize this once the Next Big Outrage heaves into view and the pundits mount their high horses to charge after it.
At this writing, Northam seems to be heeding what I call “Roland’s Rule” – the advice to sit tight during explosions of public indignation until everyone has calmed down and the calls for your head die off. I named it for Illinois politician Roland Burris, who calmly weathered the furious storm that followed his appointment to the U.S. Senate in late 2008 by Gov. Rod Blagojevich after Blagojevich’s arrest on corruption charges.
It’s a rule that has served Trump, Bill Clinton, Brett Kavanaugh and others in public who’ve bided their time until the flames on the torches of the masses burned out.
Virginia is not facing an emergency that demands a new governor today. If a month from now it still looks as if he can’t be an effective governor or if the bill of particulars against him has grown, then yes, he should quit.
But not yet. Not for this.
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