For those not familiar with blackface, it originated as a type of makeup used by non-black actors to portray caricatures of black people. In the United States, it is generally considered unambiguously racist—though there are those who would argue that if the portrayal is not a caricature, then it is not racist.
While the use of blackface in the arts has largely ceased (though there is still controversy about white actors taking non-white roles) it has persisted in popular culture. Not surprisingly, it seems to most frequently appear at costume parties—such as on Halloween but also at other events. As might be suspected, the revelation that a public figure appeared in blackface can be a career ender. Recently, Mile Ertel resigned as the Secretary of State of my adopted state of Florida when photos of him in blackface became public. He dressed up as a black Katrina victim a mere two months after the storm devasted the region. This was almost fifteen years ago and some contend this past behavior should not be held against him now. While Ertel is a Republican, blackface is bipartisan.
The release of a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook (showing one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan gear) has created a firestorm for Democratic governor Ralph Northam of Virginia. As this is being written, he intends to stay in office—despite broad calls for him to resign. Since the incident occurred in 1984, there is once again the matter of time—should the Northham of today be punished for what occurred in 1984?
One possible defense of someone who wore blackface in the past is to argue that they were not fully aware of the history and implications of blackface. That is, they did not intend to be racist. Proponents of this defense will point out that people do often dress up in non-racist odd and problematic costumes the wearers think are just fine—especially when alcohol is involved.
This defense is not entirely absurd. Everyone has done stupid things from ignorance rather than pure malice. Also, everyone has done things that are wrong because of lapses in their judgment or due to a bad influence like alcohol or peer pressure. While it would be a fallacy to argue that a practice is acceptable because it is commonly done, it is reasonable to argue that judgments of behavior should consider the reality of how humans behave.
While blackface is clearly racist, if a person put it on from ignorance, then they could be justly forgiven. The obvious problem is that the history of blackface and its implications are well known in the United States. While a young child could claim ignorance, anyone who has gotten into double digits of age would be hard-pressed to maintain the ignorance defense. They could, however, use the aberration defense—that they did not act in ignorance, but they are not racist.
While it might seem absurd to say that a person could do something racist without being racist, there is an obvious analogy to lying. While a person who lies is a liar when they lie, it would be absurd to permanently label a person who is generally honest a liar. Likewise, a person who is generally not racist, but has engaged in some racist behavior, should not be permanently labeled as a racist. Naturally, there are exceptions for extreme cases—if a person’s few racist deeds included a race-based lynching, then considering them racist would make sense. The key question is whether the incident is an aberration or a manifestation of the person’s character. This is where time becomes a critical factor.
To steal from Aristotle, assessing a person’s actions requires considering whether they are acting from a fixed and permanent disposition. If a person has the vice of racism, they would be generally consistent in their racism—it would not be an irregular or aberrant part of their behavior. Someone who is not a racist might have done some racist acts in their past, but if these acts are few and relatively minor, then they should not be considered a racist—because they are not. To use an analogy, a person who has told a few minor lies in the past but is generally honest should not be condemned as a liar.
As such, while appearing in blackface would be racist, the person should be judged not by a single racist or ignorant action. The person’s reasons for the action must be considered and, importantly, their general character must be assessed. As such, while Ertel and Northam should definitely not have put on blackface, the act itself does not suffice to determine whether they are racists who engaged in their habitual racism or non-racists who did something racist. Their complete character and history must be considered.
It could be objected that the principle of judging people based on their character and broad history of behavior rather than on a single incident is unacceptable. In the case of blackface, it could be argued that the offense is so serious that it forever marks a person, rendering them eternally unfit for public office. But, the idea of eternal offenses is problematic—otherwise redemption is an impossibility.