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Conservatives can’t agree if blackface is always racist

Two top elected Democratic officials in Virginia wore blackface in the 1980s. But does a racist action require racist intent?

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks with reporters at the governor’s mansion on February 2, 2019, in Richmond, Virginia.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Virginia Democrats in state government are reeling from a series of almost incomprehensible scandals, one involving a serious allegation of sexual assault and two involving blackface and racism, all of which could shift the balance of political power in the state. And many on the right are, to put it mildly, somewhat amused by the chaos.

But conservatives are also raising their own concerns about Virginia’s current political maelstrom, specifically regarding demands from Democrats and others for Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring to resign over their use of blackface during the 1980s. And those concerns have taken on two forms.

First, some on the right are wondering whether America is “prepared to rebuke everyone from Judy Garland to Joni Mitchell to Jimmy Kimmel” over the issue of blackface, arguing that a “zero tolerance” policy for blackface does more harm than good. As Coleman Hughes argued in National Review on Wednesday, “Instead, we should take a more measured approach, one that, without minimizing the ugly legacy of minstrelsy, allows a modicum of mercy for the accused and accounts for the intentions of the transgressor.” (Hughes is African-American.)

But second, and perhaps far more important, other conservatives are wondering whether blackface — typically, the act of white people dressing up as black people by using makeup, or, in Northam’s case, shoe polish — is always racist, or whether it can be the product of ignorance, without being inherently racist or reveling in stereotypes. In short, does an action require racist intent to be racist?

The commonness of blackface does little to defang it

As my colleague Dylan Scott detailed on Wednesday, the allegations surrounding both Northam and Herring are focused on their use of blackface while in medical school and college, respectively, with a photograph from Northam’s medical school yearbook page showing someone in blackface and someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood emerging after he made comments about an abortion bill that some construed as supportive of infanticide.

As for Herring:

Herring, the attorney general, follows Northam and Fairfax in the Virginia line of succession. But on Wednesday, he admitted that he, too, had put on blackface for a college party in 1980, when he and his friends “dressed like rappers.” Herring called it a one-time occurrence and said he had “a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others.”

“It was really a minimization of both people of color and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then,” Herring said in a statement.

With this in mind, Hughes’s piece in National Review points out something important. As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie notes, “blackface is so thoroughly associated with the worst of American racism that we should expect immediate condemnation of politicians and public figures who have any association with it, even if it’s a decades-old offense.” But the practice appears to remain bafflingly common.

Jimmy Kimmel did it. Jimmy Fallon did it. Sarah Silverman did it. Ashton Kutcher did it. The View co-host Joy Behar did it. Heck, Shirley Temple did it (she was 7 years old at the time).

In the early 1980s, when both Northam and Herring were apparently using blackface, GOP House Minority Leader Robert Michel defended blackface and minstrel shows as “fun” and not “disparaging.”

On college campuses across the country, the use of blackface at parties was and is apparently so common that barely two weeks ago, a Tufts University student was investigated by school officials for allegedly appearing on Instagram in blackface. (And it’s not just college: Around that same time, Florida’s secretary of state resigned from office after photographs of him in blackface mocking survivors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 became public. He was 35 years old at the time.)

(I should note here that when I spoke about the Virginia case with National Review columnist David French, who was born in Alabama and grew up in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky, he told me that he had never seen a blackface incident “aside from on the news.”)

But with so many people apparently engaging in black-people cosplay, some on the right argue that to repudiate all of them would be not only impossible but wrong. The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher wrote that the scandal was just “identity politics” run amok, adding, “I’m on record here saying that blackface, even in the 1980s, is inexcusable — but I don’t believe that Ralph Northam should resign over it, provided that he has no record of mistreating black people as a physician and a politician.”

RedState’s Elizabeth Vaughn argued that Northam and Herring were in college when they wore blackface, and that some black comedians have worn whiteface. She concluded, “Do we really want to live in such an intolerant society, knowing that something as trivial as a Halloween costume we may have worn 40 years ago might destroy us?”

(The “whiteface” incident referenced here is from an Eddie Murphy sketch skewering racism that appeared on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s. Part of the sketch finds Murphy, wearing whiteface, visiting a bank for a loan and being handed fistfuls of money and told, “Pay us back anytime you like. Or don’t!” It is not, to be clear, the same thing as blackface, because context and history have not yet died.)

And others on the right wonder if there are gradations within the topic of blackface itself — whether dressing up as a specific black person (in the case of Herring, 1980s hip-hop legend Kurtis Blow) is substantively different from the type of blackface popularized in minstrel shows in the early 19th century and still occasionally seen today.

I spoke with conservative pundit Ben Shapiro about his thoughts on Northam and Herring. He told me, “Blackface is racist; putting on makeup to dress up as Diana Ross is racially insensitive at best and racist at worst, but isn’t equivalent to Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy,’ which is unmistakable and obviously malicious racism.”

“Attributing the same level of racism to both actions seems inaccurate,” he said. “Ignorance and stupidity seem plausible in the first case but not the second. This distinction is only important in how we treat possible forgiveness. Sins of intent are worse than sins of ignorance.”

French told me that “I don’t really credit the notion that there might exist ‘innocent’ blackface — it was all bad, but to varying degrees.” He added, “I do believe that intent matters, and that not all incidents are the same.”

“I also think there are people who used blackface and were just stupid and ignorant. I think some were casually contemptuous. I think some were deeply malicious,” he said.

Racism isn’t murder — it doesn’t require proving criminal intent

The question of intent is an important one in many aspects of public life — but not, I’d argue, on the subject of blackface, or racism in general, contrary to conservative writers like Dreher.

First and foremost, many of the most racist actions and decisions of our past were made by people who fully believed themselves to be beyond accusations of racism. (Some of those people have even found accusations of racism themselves deeply offensive.)

For example, “grandfather clauses” in voting laws — which stated that only those who could vote before 1867 or if they were the descendants of those who could — technically applied to everyone living in the seven states that passed such legislation but effectively shoved black Americans (who were unable to vote before the passage of the 15th Amendment) out of the voting booth.

Even in the majority decision of the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson — which established “separate but equal” and effectively legalized Jim Crow laws that segregated much of America based on race — the justices argued that their decision was only considered racist because black people thought it was.

As Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote in the majority decision, “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

But more important, blackface was never innocent. At every point of its usage — even when African Americans were required to do it to appear onstage in the 1860s, even in 1984, when Ralph Northam was reportedly doing it — the usage of blackface was deeply and inherently racist. It played on stereotypes both old and new of black people, and, more perniciously, showed a reticence to engage with actual, real-life black people, and a preference to engage with white people dressed as black people instead.

At the height of segregation, this was explicit. For example, many Southern theaters simply would not show films in which black actors or performers appeared. Blackface, however, was permitted. When Fred Astaire performed a tap tribute to legendary black dancers Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles in the 1936 film Swing Time, he did so in blackface, which is how they would have been seen by audiences at the time.

Even today, blackface (even in imitation of a specific person) is indicative of a view of black people not as people but as ideas, or costumes, or something other than, and inferior to, fully realized persons. Wearing shoe polish on one’s face, or using bronzer or dark makeup, does not make one look anything like, in Herring’s case, Kurtis Blow, or, in Northam’s case, Michael Jackson. It makes one look like, quite literally, a pale — and poor — imitation. In other words, an insult.

Contrary to common arguments now, blackface was considered deeply offensive by black Americans even in minstrelsy’s heyday — though their voices went largely unheard. Frederick Douglass called blackface minstrel groups the “filthy scum of white society” in 1848, and the NAACP went to court in 1951 to prevent the televising of the blackface minstrel radio show Amos ’n’ Andy. (The televised version actually starred black actors.)

For entirely understandable reasons — namely, legalized segregation and the horrific violence and depredations that came with every single piece of Jim Crow law and American anti-black racism — the NAACP and other groups striving for equality largely set their focus on attempting to keep black Americans alive and left blackface for another time.

Moreover, there is such a thing as racist idiocy. Not all racism looks like the lynching of Henry Smith in 1893 in front of 10,000 jeering onlookers. Nor does all racism look like calling someone the n-word and denying them access to an apartment or medical care. Occasionally, racism looks like covering yourself in dark paint to purportedly make yourself look like Diana Ross (and failing miserably). Or believing that, like Joy Behar, putting on brown face paint can make you look like a “beautiful African woman.”

Racism is itself deeply idiotic, based on a set of stereotypes and pseudoscientific beliefs that are more societal invention than hard-nosed fact. Yet racism’s inherent absurdity has not prevented racism from resulting in hundreds of years of injustice at absolute best and human bondage and murder at worst.

Blackface, too, is idiotic, and it is also tremendously racist, every single time it’s done, by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, celebrities and comedians. Such a judgment does not require an examination of the inner workings of the human heart of the person wearing blackface. Such a judgment requires merely the willingness to look.