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Est. April 5, 2002
February 21, 2019 - Issue 777

Focus on Virginia Blackface Scandal
Misses a Bigger Point

"When racism is rendered a historic artifact rather than a
present-day reality -- or becomes a matter of individual
bad actors apologizing for their racist behavior — society
is let off the hook. As a result, we are not forced to grapple
with the systemic discrimination in laws, policies and practices
in which we all participate, and with larger issues of
institutional racism that exist in employment, criminal
justice and other aspects of American life"

(CNN) The blackface scandal that has ensnared three of Virginia's top officials provides an opportunity for America to address its long legacy of racism. There's a danger, though, that this teachable moment will be lost.

When racism is rendered a historic artifact rather than a present-day reality -- or becomes a matter of individual bad actors apologizing for their racist behavior — society is let off the hook. As a result, we are not forced to grapple with the systemic discrimination in laws, policies and practices in which we all participate, and with larger issues of institutional racism that exist in employment, criminal justice and other aspects of American life.

For example, the racial wealth gap is widening due to structural racial inequities, not because some people do not work as hard as others. Banks targeted black and Latino homeowners with predatory lending and subprime mortgages, resulting in historic losses of black wealth with the Great Recession.

In a 2018 study, Duke University researchers suggest these economic inequities, which amount to a financial penalty incurred against black people, require reparations to overcome the gap. A bill in Congress, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, would call on a government study on reparations for slavery to determine the best way to repair some of the damage to the African-American community from slavery.

Yet these are not the questions that come to mind when a blackface scandal surfaces.

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has faced calls for his resignation after allegations he dressed in blackface for a 1984 medical school yearbook photo, alongside someone dressed in Ku Klux Klan attire. Northam apologized for the photo, then later denied he posed for it -- but admitted to putting on blackface on another occasion to imitate Michael Jackson.

Further muddying the waters for himself, Northam, who refuses to resign, said, in a CBS interview with Gayle King, that he had overreacted with his initial apology. He said his advisers suggested he read Alex Haley's novel "Roots" to make amends, and he referred to African slaves as "indentured servants." Later, after a backlash, Northam released a statement saying that a historian once told him it was more accurate to use the term "indentured."

This, as Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to putting on blackface in the 1980s in an homage to rapper Kurtis Blow, and state Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican, was editor of a 1968 college yearbook featuring blackface and confederate imagery, and racial slurs against blacks, Jews and Asians.

The news that Southern white politicians wore blackface in their college yearbooks does not particularly faze or startle black people -- according to a recent Washington Post poll, nearly 60% of African-Americans didn't think Northam should resign -- because much of black people's experience has been connected to racially charged events: police brutality, lynching, segregation, Jim Crow, civil rights movement, the birther movement, etc.

And after all, minstrel shows -- a display of racist imagery meant to dehumanize black people -- where blackface originated, was viewed by many whites as a form of all-American fun.

Redemption, as does resignation, has its place for Northam and other would-be racial offenders.

Further, the legacy of slavery and discrimination has cost black people their lives, as whites and people of color have disparate health outcomes as a result of a long history of racism in health care and bias in the medical profession.

Doctors used black people for harmful and unethical medical experimentation, such as the use of enslaved black women for gynecological experiments without anesthesia, and the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which the federal government knowingly failed to treat hundreds of black men with syphilis from 1932 to 1972.

Today, according to several studies, systemic racism determines whether doctors administer pain medications to patients based on the false notion that black people are more resistant to pain. Black women experience significant delays in cancer diagnosis and do not receive the same quality of treatment as white women, according to a 2012 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the CDC also found black mothers are three to four times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth.

Truly dealing with these examples of systemic racism requires that many white Americans have the skill set and tools to discuss and address racism, discrimination and privilege. This requires an education on how racism exposes the myth of American meritocracy and the acknowledgment of the existence of white privilege and its benefits.

That's not to say that there aren't some who are trying to have these discussions. Robin DiAngelo, a white woman, and author of the book "White Fragility," argues that society is designed to protect white people from discomfort over racism. She concludes white people, particularly white progressives, are thin-skinned and become defensive when accused of racism -- unable to face their complicity in white supremacy, and seeking to attribute racism to evil, mean people who hate black people.

Part of avoiding discomfort is the idea of being colorblind and not seeing race, a notion that is becoming more prevalent in white America. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz even made the claim during his CNN Town Hall on Tuesday night.

Since race cannot be "seen," there is very little meaningful discussion about how it dictates one's experience in America.

And even if we're going to use blackface as a metric for how far the nation has come in terms of racism, consider that today, the tradition continues on college campuses into the present day with popular racist "ghetto" themed parties and Halloween parties. That's hardly being "colorblind."

This colorblindness means the existing racial injustices and hierarchies go unchallenged, and white people are seemingly left without racial competency and a positive racial consciousness, unprepared to play a role in a diverse and inclusive America.

Meanwhile, there was the election of Donald Trump, whose message of nationalism only served as salt in the festering, unaddressed putrid wounds. Since his election, voting rights and civil rights have been increasingly under attack, hate crimes are on the rise, migrant children are separated from their families and placed in detention centers, and white nationalism is mainstreamed.

Schools, media and the greater society reinforce the problem. US history -- including the genocide of millions of Native Americans and the enslavement of millions of Africans -- is not properly taught in many schools, and civil rights and black history are seemingly viewed as matters for only black people to know about. Yet black individuals such as Colin Kaepernick who shine a light on injustice and engage in peaceful protests are vilified and ostracized, and painted as troublemakers.

We need more individuals like Liam Holmes, 10, who took a knee against racial discrimination during the Pledge of Allegiance at a Durham, North Carolina, City Council meeting. The Cub Scout, who is white and comes from a Quaker family, said he discussed racial inequality with his father before the meeting, and made the decision to kneel with support and without pressure. "What I did was took a knee against racial discrimination, which is basically what (sic) people are mean to other people of different colors," Holmes said.

Some suggest America needs a national conversation for racial harmony to move past the Confederate "lost cause" narrative — a revisionist account that glorifies and justifies the role of the South in the Civil War and downplays the role of slavery -- and a truth and reconciliation commission similar to what South Africa used to address its own racist history. Such a commission would involve public hearings that acknowledge the racial abuses, violence and inequality that have taken place, address the racial divisions and develop solutions to begin the process of healing. "In a racist society it is not enough to be nonracist. We must be anti-racist," as Angela Davis once said, providing a glimpse into where America must go.

Ali Michael, an anti-racism facilitator with the workshop Race Institute for K-12 Educators, suggests white people must begin to have hard talks about racism without people of color present, to have honest discussions among themselves, to confront their privilege and become effective allies against racism.

Until this is done, apologies and resignations for racist misdeeds have their place but are empty without a full-fledged attack on institutional racism -- the policies and laws written in the spirit of those offensive symbols.

This commentary was originally published by

David A. Love, JD - Serves as Executive Editor. He is a journalist, commentator, human rights advocate and an adjunct instructor at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to theGrioAtlantaBlackStarThe Progressive,, Morpheus, NewsWorks and The Huffington Post. He also blogs at Contact Mr. Love and BC.




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David A. Love, JD
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