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The racist role of blackface in American society

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam now says he is not pictured in a 1984 yearbook photo of people in blackface and Ku Klux Klan costumes, although he admits he wore blackface on a separate occasion. Regardless, he is facing calls to resign. Yamiche Alcindor talks to Duke University’s Mark Anthony Neal and The Atlantic's Vann Newkirk about the role of blackface in America's fraught racial history.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As we reported earlier, there have been shifting explanations from Virginia's governor in response to a racist photo uncovered in his medical school yearbook.

    Yamiche Alcindor reports on the pressure Governor Ralph Northam faces.

  • Protesters:

    We demand your resignation!

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A governor under fire and a state reeling. This morning, outside Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's official residence, one sign carried a message he heard all weekend: "Resign."

    But Northam has refused to step down. Instead, at the Virginia Statehouse today, he met with his staff. That didn't stop the Republican House speaker from adding his voice to a chorus of people demanding that Northam turn his resignation.

  • Kirk Cox:

    Regardless of the veracity of the photograph, the governor's lost the confidence of the people and cannot effectively govern.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The photograph appears on Northam's page on his medical school yearbook from 1984. It shows two people looking at the camera, one in blackface wearing a hat, bow tie and plaid pants, the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Friday evening, Northam said that he was indeed in the photo, and he apologized.

  • Gov. Ralph Northam, D-Va.:

    That photo and the racist and offensive attitudes it represents doesn't reflect that person I am today or the way that I have conducted myself as a soldier, a doctor, and a public servant. I am deeply sorry.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But, less than 24 hours later, he reversed course.

  • Gov. Ralph Northam, D-Va.:

    I tell the truth, I'm telling the truth today. That wasn't my picture.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    During a Saturday press conference, he said he was positive he wasn't in the picture. He also refused to resign. The governor did admit that he wore blackface on different occasion in 1984.

    In San Antonio at a dance, he said he darkened his face with black shoe polish to look like Michael Jackson. Throughout the weekend, the governor faced mounting pressure from all sides to step down. Those calling for him to leave office include Virginia's Republican and Democratic parties, the commonwealth's Democratic House and Senate caucuses, its attorney general, plus the state's two Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez.

    At least five Democratic presidential candidates also called for Northam to step down. On Sunday, NAACP President Derrick Johnson also said he should resign.

  • Derrick Johnson:

    Whether he actively participated or passively was present, he not one time up until this point acknowledged that this took place, objected to that behavior or stated that I had a different upbringing, I was a part of a southern culture that embraced this racist, vile behavior, and I'm a changed man now.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Next in line to replace Northam is the current lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, a 39-year-old African-American lawyer.

    Last month, in the Virginia Statehouse, Fairfax protested the celebration of Robert E. Lee's birthday. But Fairfax also faces potential trouble. A woman alleges he sexually assaulted her. Fairfax said today the claim is a — quote — "uncorroborated smear."

    To discuss how Governor Northam fits into a larger conversation about race in America, I'm joined by Mark Anthony Neal. He's a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and the author of several books, including "New Black Man." Also joining me is Vann Newkirk. He writes about politics and policy for "The Atlantic."

    Now, thank you both for joining me.

    I want to first talk to you a little bit about blackface. This is something that has been used to mock and dehumanize African-Americans for decades.

    Let's look at this.

    Mark, first to you. For people who don't understand, why is that so offensive?

  • Mark Anthony Neal:

    It's a caricature of black life.

    Before the pre-electronic area, before television, radio and even film, it was — blackface minstrelsy was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States in the 19th and early 20th century. And it always was about making a mockery of black folks, dehumanizing black folks.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Blackface seems to be the line that people have crossed and said, you know what, this is where we're not going to have people talk about or even joke about blackface.

    Why do you think that line is there?

  • Vann Newkirk:

    Well, I think like Mark said, given the history, given the fact that it was a staple of an exclusive and — exclusionary and racist regime of media, it's one we all know well to be racist.

    And so I think when people go and an act out, continually do it, it's kind of the easiest one to spot and root out. And I think people react so vehemently about it because there's no real defense of it as any type of legitimate art. It is completely racist. And we all know it to be so.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Vann is talking about completely racist.

    Congressman Steve King, Mark, still has a job after questioning whether or not the term white supremacy should be offensive. Donald Trump has been called a racist by the NAACP. Why do you think those men keep their jobs, and there's a swift and widespread condemnation of Governor Northam?

  • Mark Anthony Neal:

    Because it's about the optics.

    When you think about the discourse coming from the president or Congressman King, right, you could always go back and forth about how these people were misinterpreted.

    But when you see the optics of blackface, right, there's no way to get around it. For the most part, it's been something that hasn't been in the public sphere since the mid-1950s. It's largely gone underground.

    And because of social media now, it is so much easier now to go back and track where it's been underground and have it bubble up in public in ways that we hadn't seen before. And it's a reminder, right, of a racist past that folks don't really absolutely want to deal with, even as it resonates so powerfully in the moment.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Vann, he's talking about optics. Do you think it's optics? Do you think it's something deeper?

  • Vann Newkirk:

    I think it is mostly optics.

    I think the fact that it's so easy to spot and it's such a bright line, easy line to not cross, that that definitely plays into it. But, also, I think there's a larger issue at play here, which is the fact that there — of course, if we're talking about the possibility of making some people who disenfranchised black people or throw them in prison, if it comes to the point where we can talk about them leaving office, that's a conversation we should have.

    But it's the prohibition, the taboo against certain easily to — easy-to-spot actions of bigotry, those, I think, play a function in making it so you can actually police those more subtle things. If you get rid of the prohibition on the really red line, easy bigotry, then you can almost nothing about anything else.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, Vann, you wrote about Governor Northam's policies. He campaigned on $15 minimum wage. He talked about Medicare for all or health care, single-payer health care, free community college.

    Do you think that people can or should separate his policies from his rhetoric and this photo of him? And can other people do that? Can other people say, I did once appear in blackface, but now I have policies that are going to help black people?

  • Vann Newkirk:

    So, I used to live in Virginia. And I have talked to lots of people, black voters there especially.

    And I think, number, one the sense is, black voters are nothing if not pragmatic, right? They're strategic. And they're thinking about this, from the game theory scenario. And the fact that the people behind him in the line of succession are Democrats, are people who are going to put forward the same policy agenda, is definitely part of sort of the ease in calling for him to be ousted.

    And I do think there are — especially in Virginia, where symbols are so much of a part of the conversation, where the symbols of the Confederacy are — dominate the state, and they were kind of the reason behind Charlottesville and the deadly rallies there, I don't know if you can really take the symbolism away from the larger policy agenda.

    The fact that you want — they're looking for a governor, a leader who is going to stand up against people who are saying, this is the cradle of Confederacy and pushing a neo-Confederate agenda. How do you have the moral authority now to do those things, if you are revealed to be kind of the same cloth? I think that matters.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What do you make of that, Mark?

  • Mark Anthony Neal:

    I think that's dead on.

    I think we have to hold people accountable, regardless of what side of the aisle they're own. I think it also reflects on the way for African-American voters, and knowing the longer history of racism in the medical industry, even if it wasn't the governor, right, there are obviously two people who were in medical school that are somebody's doctors these days that are holding these views or held these views.

    I think you have to make hard decisions about what kind of folks you want to represent. And I think the fact that there is a successor in line who's an African-American makes it easy to put that pressure on at this point in time.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Mark is talking about health care policy. You were in health care policy before you got into journalism, Vann.

    What do you make of people who look at this picture of a yearbook, medical school yearbook, and say, that could be my doctor? And then you couple that with the idea that there are these disparities in health care, where African-American women are three or four times more likely to die in childbirth. What do you make of that?

  • Vann Newkirk:

    Well, if you look at the medical work force, most of those folks are older white men. Most of my physicians have been older white men.

    So you're talking about people who are in this age group who — going to schools like this, who likely have yearbook photos like this, and I imagine that yearbook photos — if you have yearbook photos where people are dressing up as the Klan, there are a lot of other attitudes and behaviors that go well beyond that.

    And so you're talking about these people going and making decisions where it's life or death sometimes, yes, but where it's subtle, where you have to understand the nuances of black pain and how people express pain and deal with pain differently, where you have to be able to walk the line between telling a patient, a woman, in a difficult labor what to do and listening to her.

    And I guarantee — I have worked in cultural and health competency and literacy. Those are really small things that lots of people miss, and I guarantee lots of people who have really bigoted and racist backgrounds miss, that matter in terms of — these are really razor-thin margins, when a woman's coming in and she's close to having a hemorrhage, when she's in labor. These things matter.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, Mark, what do you make of the visceral reaction that people have, the pain that people feel when they see that yearbook photo?

  • Mark Anthony Neal:

    It's a reminder. There's no question it's a reminder. It's a reminder that black folks have been dehumanized, and they're still dehumanized in the American imagination.

    It's a reminder of America's racist past, obviously for older generations of African-Americans, but also for young folks who thought at this point in time that we'd be well beyond conversations about blackface.

    It is absurd that we're talking about blackface in 2018, as the governor referencing winning a moonwalk contest back in 1984.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, thank you to both of you for joining me, Vann Newkirk of "The Atlantic" and Mark Anthony Neal of Duke University. Thank you.

  • Mark Anthony Neal:

    Thank you.

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