News & Opinion » Urban Journal

Blackface, photographs, and America's racism


It started with the news that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam might have been photographed wearing blackface or a KKK hood in college. And then Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who had said Northam should resign, admitted that he had worn blackface in college. And by last week, reporters at USA Today publications had found more than 200 racist images in yearbooks from the 1970’s and 1980’s, from colleges around the country – including Rochester-area institutions.

Students in blackface, in KKK hoods, participating in mock lynchings: blatant, intentional racism, published in yearbooks at educational institutions. As USA Today said, "racist images were everywhere."

Well, how big a deal is this? In most of these cases, the people in the photographs are young people. Many of us did things when we were in college that we're not proud of now.

A lot of the discussion about the photographs has focused on the fact that they were taken 30 or 40 years ago. Should something somebody did in college be a fireable offense now?

On a recent “Connections” program on WXXI, former Mayor Bill Johnson, who has been the object of plenty of racist actions, said he would be outraged if he saw a white person in blackface. But, he said, he wouldn’t insist that the person be fired.

“I ought to have a right and you ought to have a right to live down our past bad behavior,” he said, “to put our record as adults and our contributions to society.”

But Johnson also echoed what a friend of mine had noted recently: the yearbook controversy points to an issue that’s far more serious than racist college pranks.

The problem with all of the cries for people to resign, the friend said, is that it lets us treat racism as an individual problem, not a systemic one. And racism is very much a systemic problem.

Treating blackface as individual racism, said my friend, denies the history of blackface – and its significance. Blackface was a widely accepted form of entertainment. And it wasn’t innocent, innocuous entertainment; it mocked African Americans. That was its purpose: mockery as entertainment.

The people wearing blackface, whether they’ve been Virginia college students or prominent actors, were wrong. But focusing solely on them lets society off the hook. Society – including the college officials who let those yearbooks be published, and the alumni who saw them – was complicit. For decades.

And on “Connections,” Johnson referred to a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, “How Ralph Northam and Others Can Repent of America’s Original Sin,” by the Rev. William Barber, president of the non-profit organization Repairers of the Breach.

“Scapegoating politicians who are caught in the act of interpersonal racism,” Barber wrote, “will not address the fundamental issue of systemic racism. We have to talk about policy.”

We also have to talk about “trust and power,” Barber said. “If white people in political leadership are truly repentant, they will listen to black and other marginalized people in our society.”

And, Barber said, “we cannot allow political enemies of Virginia’s governor to call for his resignation over a photo when they continue themselves to vote for the policies of white supremacy. If anyone wants to call for the governor’s resignation, they should also call for the resignation of anyone who has supported racist voter suppression or policies that have a disparate impact on communities of color.”