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.
Before I read this column this evening, I was perusing a couple of others on the same topic. One was about a picture, hanging in a bar, of tired coal miners in 1900 having a beer after work.
Rashaad Thomas, a writer of a fair amount of renown, declared this photo to be “racist”. He ignored the context of the photograph, claiming instead that the coal dust on the miners’ faces were “Blackface”, that they reminded him of the film “Birth of a Nation”, and made a fairly big deal about being offended by the picture. He was further offended by the fact that the restaurant owner would not take the photo down. (He referred to the owner as “that white owner”, by the way). Among other things, he said this:
“Fact: The photograph shows coal miners’ faces covered in soot. The context of the photograph is not the issue.”
I started to wonder where this would all go, and I didn’t have to wonder long. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a professor at Linfield College, declared that the movie “Mary Poppins” was racist, because she goes down a chimney, gets covered with soot, embraces the dirt, and sings a song.
And this is where we are.
I started a couple of responses to your earlier post about “racist America” and how there was never a time in American History where American immigration policy was not racist, but I didn’t really finish any of them. I think it’s because my thoughts were incomplete. But the bottom line is that I think that today, in this country, the “rush to racism” (Or “sexism”, or “toxic masculinity”, or “fill-in-the-blank”) is an intellectually lazy position – one that we know will get lots of support from the members of the tribes, one that we know we won’t have to defend – and one that actually parries the burden of proof to the other side. And we also know that by picking up this burden, the other side will find themselves inexorably bound to (dare I say it?) a “tar-baby”.
The more the accused protests, the more defensive he appears, and the more weight is given to the accusations.
It happened to Bret Kavanaugh. And now it’s happening to Ralph Northam. And the really sick, dysfunctional aspect to this whole thing is that no one understands what is happening!
I hate to tell you this, Michael, but despite the insights you offer about what constitutes a racist or a liar, and if a single deed is enough or whatever metric you want to apply to it, no one cares. That’s not the point, and no one really wants to think about it.
I know that I don’t want to think about it – because I’m so cynical at this point that I believe, as Rashaad Thomas states, that there is no context, no explanation, no defense and worse, no denial acceptable today – and if you stand accused, you are finished.
(I’m actually looking forward to next month, when millions of Christians around the world will have their foreheads smudged with ash on March 6. Will the entire Catholic Church be accused of racism, with some Rashaad Thomas wannabes declaring that this ash is not the symbol of humility and repentance that Christians have claimed for centuries, but really just a thumbing of the nose to African Americans, a wink and a “dog-whistle” to racists everywhere?)
But in a larger sense, our tribal adherence to our different sides needs the conversation stoppers of racism and sexism. Why should I have to go up against your incisive logic about Northam’s position on abortion and all the moral and ethical issues it presents, when i can just skirt the whole thing and force his resignation on the basis of my outrage at some stupid act he may not have committed 35 years ago?
His denial that it was him is being completely ignored – but unbelievably, there is an “investigation” into the decades of culture at that medical school, to see if they can somehow be held accountable for his behavior.
And perhaps this will inspire him to reach across that ever-widening “aisle”, and invite Brett Kavanaugh out for a beer. Seems these two have a lot in common.
In reading about these incidents today, one article referenced Poe’s Law …
“without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views so obviously exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the parodied views”
Is there an inverse to this law? Because right now, I’m having a hard time not mistaking the sincere expressions of real views for some absurd parody. New York Times? The Onion? Is there a difference?
From outside the US, none of this means anything to me. It’s like you’re talking baseball, or something.
Meanwhile, over on Change dot org, I see nearly 35,000 people have signed a petition for Nike to recall shoes with an Airmax logo that they say, if you flip it over horizontally and then flip it vertically (I had to do that in Irfanview just to get some sense of what they were talking about), and look just at the middle bit, has some resemblance to the word for God in Arabic script. (I don’t see it, myself, except that maybe anything with a W or inverted M in the middle might qualify by this standard.)
If anything deserves a philosophical, or psychological, examination, it’s the process by which people snowball offense. We just had the Catholic school party thing, which strikes me as remarkable mostly because nothing happened. Nothing at all, Just another day in a popular protest space with one guy banging a drum in another guy’s face while he waited for his bus. No harm, no foul, no crimes, no battery, no assault. And yet, at least from scanning US news, it seems to have been on a par with the big freeze as the top commented story of the last week. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if we found a long term Russian operation behind identity politics and outrage culture in the US. I can’t account for it otherwise. (And that mysteriously disappearing fake account that started it is suspicious.)
Not sure where you’re located CT, but I live here, and not only does this not mean anything to me, either, it feels to me as though the country has gone entirely batshit crazy.
A bizarre, but relevant analogy –
Years ago, I hosted a bachelor party for a good friend who was getting married. We held the party at his house – thinking it would be a nice, reserved party with genteel gents standing poolside with their gin and tonics talking about the stock market. Well, it got way out of hand – to the point where my friend’s dad threatened to call the police if the (extremely) rowdy guests did not leave immediately.
So my friend and I tried to get them to leave … “Here – take the beer. We don’t care. Just go somewhere else. Please.”
So what do you think happened? They Held Out For More Beer! If we were going to give them a sixpack as incentive to leave, well, maybe they could get two? Three?
And so it is with all the offense registered here. “Wow – they really backed off! How far can we take this thing? ” And suddenly, everyone is offended, everyone is a racist, and people’s careers are being destroyed left and right for actions they may or may not have taken (no one really knows, no one can really prove anything) 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
“Nobody gives you power, Bobby! Real power is something you take!” (Jock Ewing, to his son Bobby, “Dallas”, sometime in the 1980’s)
And we now know where the real power lies in this country, don’t we?
One of the most rational public comments made about this Northam thing was made by one of his supporters – may have been a staff member or even the Lt. Governor …
“He made a bad decision at a time when bad decisions like this were not such a big deal.”.
To apply contemporary moral and ethical judgement to behavior that occurred at a different time and place without considering context is unjust and unfair; to be so intolerant while claiming to be a member of a bastion of tolerance is hypocritical and absurd –
Except that it’s not any of those things. It’s just about power, plain and simple.
Personally, the blackface issue seems relatively tame compared to the guy in KKK gear. What is *that* doing on his yearbook page?
But that’s just me.
It’s all relative. Here you have a guy that everyone is trying to distance themselves from because 35 years ago he (may have) made a stupid decision because he thought it would be funny – at a time when (as one of his supporters noted) “bad decisions like that weren’t thought of in the same way they are today”.
Personally, I think what’s more important (for him and for everyone else in this situation) is what they’ve done since that time – what is his judicial/professional/legislative record? Who is he today?
And Northam is the guy who says, “The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the family wants, would be made comfortable, and a discussion would happen between the doctor and the mother.”
To me, that’s a much more important issue to be discussing with regards to his leadership of the State of Virginia and the direction that state, and the rest of the country, want to take.
With all of the air time we recently had with Brett Kavanaugh, does anyone have a clue as to his judicial record, his position on major issues, or his take on the Constitution, the role of the Supreme Court, and the balance of power among the three branches of government? Does anyone care?
Meanwhile, despite his having signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s vocabulary was peppered with the “n” word – he even referred to the Act as “the ‘N’ bill”. Even after having signed the bill into law, he continued his work with the bloc of Southern Democrats in keeping Jim Crow alive and well.
Today, of course, an inadvertent slip of the tongue by an on-air meteorologist can and did ruin his career and his life; the use of the completely unrelated “Niggardly” cost David Howard his job – and while we all rub our hands about a 35-year-old snapshot, we seem to forget that Robert Byrd, the longest serving member of the US Senate, was not only in the KKK, but created his own chapter and became the “Exalted Cyclops”, whatever the hell that means. Here’s an excerpt of a letter written by Byrd to Theodore Bilbo, the Senator from Mississippi in 1944:
“I shall never fight in the armed forces with a negro by my side … Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”
Of course, Johnson, Byrd, and others somehow “rose above” their racist roots and have been forgiven over and over – by a public tolerance that is probably more in line with the way we ought to be behaving today.
Meanwhile, there is very little press, no questions being asked, and certainly no action or even criticism of Elizabeth Warren’s anti-Semitism. Warren engaged in fundraising efforts in support of a virulent anti-Semite, Leslie Cockburn, who espouses many conspiracy theories about Jews, and whose work has been used as source material for a number of White Nationalist organizations. (Fortunately, Cockburn, who described Jews in her book as “women with blue hair and pseudo-athletic men,” lost in Virginia’s 5th District election. She said that she was inspired to run for Congress by the presidency of Donald Trump. I guess we know a little more about his detractors, don’t we? “Some animals are more equal than others”.
And of course there is Rep. Danny K. Davis:
“I regard Farrakhan as an outstanding human being”
And Representative Andre Carson, who refuses to characterize Farrakhan’s remarks as hate speech. (Farrakhan warned his listeners about “Satanic Jews who have infected the whole world with poison and deceit.”, and said,
“contemporary Jews are responsible for promoting child molestation, misogyny, police brutality and sexual assault, among other social ills. In addition, he asserted that contemporary Judaism is nothing but a “system of tricks and lies” which Jews study in order to learn how to “dominate” non-Jews.”
Then there’s Ilhan Omar – “Israel has hypnotized the world”
These people don’t have a bad decision hidden in their past, one that doesn’t represent who they are today as evidenced by decades of professional relationships and achievement – they live their lives and hold these beliefs today! According to an editorial in Tablet magazine,
“this was not about politicians with whom we disagreed on policy or who we considered simply wrong or stupid or venal. The candidates singled out were not “controversial.” They were people running for public office who had trafficked—some of them very recently—in “open and blatant” anti-Semitism without ever recanting or attempting to make amends for their actions. Half of them are now serving in Congress, and of those, three are incumbents serving multiple terms.
It makes me wonder how we can be so self righteous about a snapshot, while we find a way to forgive some of the most egregious racists in the country, and think nothing of electing avowed anti-Semites to Congress.
But that’s just me.
the blackface issue seems relatively tame compared to the guy in KKK gear. What is *that* doing on his yearbook page?
Yeah, I’m guessing you didn’t get the whole story. One of his excuses for the photo was that he might not be the guy in the blackface but he could have been the guy in the KKK gear. I think he also said the sun was in his eyes, his dog ate his homework, locusts…
what’s that black stuff all over Belushi’s face?
OK, this is getting comical. I mean, it’s all tragic, but taking on the aspect of farce.
So the Governor is being asked to resign on the basis of having dressed up as black 34 years ago (is there a statute of limitations on blackface?). His deputy, who would succeed him, is accused of sexual misconduct (but the same Democrats who screamed Believe Surviviors when there was a he-said, she-said situation with Kavanaugh are now believing him, or staying very quiet) …
… and now the next in line to the Governorship, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, has come out as dressing up as a rapper he listened to 37 years ago. (Did they even have rap 37 years ago? How time flies.)
How many of the next-in-lines are going to be asked to step aside? Who’s the State Dogcatcher?
Michael LaBossiere says
It does seem to be playing out like a tragi-comic bit; I can even picture it playing out-a series of people stepping up the podium with cuts to old pictures of them in blackface or Klan hoods. The closing would be the last person actually in blackface. Fade to black with a laugh track.
It is getting increasingly difficult to treat this as anything but a farce. This is the tragedy.
Accusations of racism have become so prevalent, and are treated with such disproportionate, hyperbolized reaction that the accusations will become diluted; America will tire soon of this clown act, and the result will be that truly heinous racists and other abusers will no longer seem important.
Part of this will be due to the sheer volume, of course – how much of this can we really stand to have in our daily news feeds? But it will also point to the veracity of the claims and the transparent hypocrisy of the blatant use of this tactic to merely bring down a rival.
Already – and this blog isn’t the first place this is appearing – there is a “ho-hum” reaction to these unending “outs”, and the feigned outrage is, as you say, transitioning from boredom to comedy.
Just like police violence, just like gun control, just like the refusal of bakers to create cakes for same-sex weddings, the media is capitalizing on all of the hype and making sure this story stays in front of us for as long as they can milk it for as much as they can get. And the Facebook/Twitter/Reddit crowd are all too willing to be unwitting participants. But I think we’re on the downslope – and as more and more people start to tire of this unending assault or begin to just find it funny, it will go away and we’ll have some new and different story to be outraged about.
The short term victors, for now, are the political operatives who have learned how to use this power, and the short-term losers will be the people who have to resign in shame and ignominy.
But the long term losers will be the victims of true racism, because the accusations will have become so watered down no one will care anymore. And the long term winners will be the true, heinous racists whose lives are lived with the hatred being ascribed to so many innocent people, or people who may have one regrettable incident in their past.
The last thing the accusers would ever want is exactly what they cry out for so loudly – an end to racism. If racism ever really came to an end, what would they do? Where would they derive their power? They are not looking for equality, they are looking for superiority. And the second-to-last thing they’d ever want is exactly what they are bringing about themselves – a dilution of the power they seek.
But I think we’re on the downslope – and as more and more people start to tire of this unending assault or begin to just find it funny
Yes. It’s easy to tell when we’re on the downslope of these things. It’s right about the time that the left or academia or the media, BIRM, become victims if their own ideological malpractice. Which is why the ho-hum is appearing here. Suddenly they see the damage such thinking does to a society.
I’ll repeat here a similar comment that I made at PJ Media regarding the journalists whining about having “learn to code” thrown back at them. Some commenter said such an attack was lame, to which I responded:
There is a lot of truth to what you say. As I write this, the news and opinion about Virginia has changed; the outrage has softened and there is speculation that the accusations of sexual misconduct against Fairfax and the confession of the sin of blackface by Mark Herring will actually help Northam in his bid to stay in office.
Why? Because the next in line for the job is actually worse than a racist. The Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, is a Republican!
C’mon, guys – I mean, even moral outrage has to have limits, doesn’t it?
In the news recently is Gucci, apologizing all over the place for a black turtleneck sweater that pulls up over your chin to cover your nose and mouth, with an opening for your mouth. The opening is encircled with red. Despite the designer’s assertion that the inspiration for this look came from Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery, the barrage of complaints that the sweater “looks like” blackfaced forced the company to pull it from their catalog.
My question is this –
I ride my bike about nine months out of the year – generally until the temperature goes below freezing. I wear a black balaclava to keep my head warm, and the wind from burning my face. Am I at risk here?
Incidentally, I read this article in several sources, from the Wall Street Journal to Black Enterprise. In the latter publication, one reader posted the comment,
“And it’s ok for blacks and gringos to dress up like Mexicans on Cinco de Mayo. Get over it!!”
One of the replies to this comment was,
“No white Boy Shut your fucken Shit hole of a Mouth” (which got six “likes”).
And Gucci is being called racist.
And of course, while this fabricated offense is permeating our lives by those who seem to just want to see how far they can take it, we are living in this country with open, unabashed, and outspoken anti Semitism in our Congress.
Sadly, the comment that I post here, quasi-anonymously, is one that I would never, ever voice in public. Certainly not at work – even if the topic came up and was being discussed. Freedom of expression in this country is dead.
Google Katey Perry shoes blackface to see how stupid the stupid gets.
Let me see if I can restate my frustration…As those on the right continue to take this leftist idiocy seriously, earnestly we do no damage to it. By addressing each incremental bit of the lunacy with logic and reason we make zero progress. Because 1) we are by the nature of this game constantly playing defense and 2) there is no cost paid by the leftists for putting forward such foolishness. The latter mostly because academia and the media will find ways to either excuse or ignore it whilst simultaneously amplifying every misstep or perceived misstep or as a last resort create an outright lie in regard to those on the right. And thus the Overton Window is moved further and further to the left. It is extremely painful for me to watch so many on the right fight this nonsense defensively.
Here’s a real outside the box question…have you ever noticed that Americans make (or used to make) movies about D-Day and Brits would make movies about Dunkirk? Do you feel me on this or did that come across as a complete non-sequitur?
Michael LaBossiere says
First, $890 for that? Second, looking at the Leigh Bowery’s images does suggest that the designer was inspired by that performance artist. Third, looking at it without the Leigh Bowery context does make it look like a weird half blackface costume.
I think Gucci is absurd and overpriced pretentiouswear, but without other evidence of racism on the part of the designer it would be unfair to conclude that he is a racist.