Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
(CNN)The revelation that Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam appeared either in blackface or dressed in the hooded robe and uniform of a Ku Klux Klansman in his 1984 medical school yearbook, coming at the start of Black History Month, has produced national controversy and calls for the governor’s resignation by Democrats and Republicans.
Northam is the latest high-profile figure to run into trouble over blackface — the racist mimicking of African-Americans that dates back to the 19th century. Megyn Kelly and NBC News parted ways
last year after she defended the right of whites to dress in blackface as having nothing to do with racism.
Minstrel shows caricaturized black life in antebellum America, with whites popularizing the myth of happy slaves. The afterlife of minstrelsy and blackface continued long after slavery, popularized by hundreds of “coon” songs which were based on racist stereotypes and were enjoyed by white audiences.
Gov. Northam’s actions as a young man are both reprehensible and understandable given the nation’s long-standing and powerful refusal to come to grips with the history of racial slavery and the subsequent 100-year epic of Jim Crow racial segregation.
Calls by Republican officials for his resignation are ironic considering the modern GOP’s reluctance to admit to the existence of contemporary racism and their efforts to smear Northam’s support
for a bill loosening restrictions on late-term abortions in Virginia.
Democrats have their own share of political cowardice on race matters, with national leaders too often willing to acknowledge racism only when it rears its head in the most obvious and obnoxious manner.
The picture in Northam’s medical school yearbook illustrates the depth and breadth of white privilege and anti-black racism in America, in this case among white elites. Eastern Virginia Medical School’s willingness to publish this photo in its 1984 yearbook attests to not just the vestiges of racial slavery and institutional racism long after the civil rights era’s heroic period, but their evolution into a kind of cultural sport practiced by whites — most often without consequence — in any manner, time and place they choose.
Northam’s actions — whether in fact he dressed as a Klansman or in blackface — merit real-world political consequences. Neither the governor’s public apology nor calls for his resignation are properly confronting the bigger, systemic roots of the evils depicted in his yearbook pictures.
These portraits reflect enduring symbols of white supremacy in American history and contemporary life. They provide strength and ballast to new generations of white Americans who continue to imbibe cultural, political and social images that dehumanize the sanctity of black life. Gov. Northam did so with impunity, going on to enjoy a remarkable career in the military and politics. That he could feel so emboldened to run for public office while knowing about the existence of this picture reeks of a style of white privilege and power thought to have ended with the Jim Crow South but that continues in the present.
Northam’s story represents more than just a youthful indiscretion, the misguided behavior of a young man with too much time on his hands. It reflects a pattern of anti-black racism nurtured by democratic institutions, politics and culture and imbibed by millions of Americans who should, by now, know better, except that they apparently do not.
Thirty-five years later, images of blackface — and their subsequent controversy — pop up annually
during Halloween and sporting events.
Yet the resignation of politicians, teachers and others found guilty of these shameful displays of racial demonization are merely the tip of an enormous national iceberg. These incidents will continue to crop up, temporarily shaming individuals unlucky enough to be caught, while ignoring the willful historical blinders and false claims of racial innocence that allow blackface and Klansmen to be viewed as symbols to admire rather than objects of scorn.