A Question about Northam

Eugene Volokh asks, I provide my answer.

In a blog post at The Volokh Conspiracy, law professor Eugene Volokh concludes with this question:

But calling for him to resign because of his bad judgment (or even his racist views, if you think he actually held such views then) from 35 years ago — what kind of country would we be creating if that were really adopted as the rule?

I suppose that in this particular case we would be a country that was demonstrating that respect for African-Americans trumps letting a specific person keep a specific job of power and honor.  It might also be a country in which we started to take seriously our entrenched racism and declare that it really does matter and that it will not be tolerated.

The US Census Bureau tells me that 19.8% of the population of Virginia is African-American. It is not an unreasonable question to ask as to whether those citizens can feel confident about their governor given the revelations about the yearbook photo and the admission about blackface in another context. From a practical point of view, how can Northam effectively govern going forward?

The basic issue of his honesty and integrity are also now in question.  I simply do not believe that he cannot remember the exact details of the photo in his yearbook.  His equivocation on this topic just comes across as a man tying to save his job (and who is in active denial about how much trouble he is in).

Further, if this photo had been known earlier, would he have been nominated?  I think not. The reality is that he has avoided a day of reckoning over this photo.  So, to return to Volokh’s question, I will conclude with one of my own:  Why should it be the case that now that he is elected he should not have to take responsibility?

 

 

 

 

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Pylon says:

    I’ve been thinking a fair bit about it. I think I would be way more forgiving and might not even want a resignation of the guy just said “I was an idiot then. I don’t feel that I was a racist but that certainly was a racist act, for which I am embarrassed and sorry. It was so it a part of my present character that I’d forgotten I even did it, but there it is”. And included some sort of acknowledgement about why it’s wrong and was even then.

    The guy’s record on race as an official is not bad. So I’d probably buy that apology as genuine.

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  2. Jay L Gischer says:

    In Northam’s case, as with Kavanaugh, it wasn’t just the behavior of long ago, but the present day reaction to it that’s far more of an issue.

    At the time that annual was produced, few would have called that behavior racist. The notion that blackface might be offensive was not widely known to white people. Stupid us.

    But the notion that he doesn’t remember something that he put in his annual is strange, to say the least.

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  3. Modulo Myself says:

    The only defense of someone who did this is that as they grew older they worked against what they were. It’s really not that Northam did something wrong in 1984 and therefore he must be punished. No, he was white and he grew up in a world where white people could be considered ‘good’ and ‘decent’ and yet could also dress up in Klan robes or blackface and play around with racism as a joke. These same ‘good’ white people were appalled if you said that they were racist or that decades of a supposedly non-racist establishment of white people who live like this would have actual racist effects. They don’t really support the Klan. After all, wasn’t King’s dream really about being freed from the stigma of being judged as a white person?

    There have always been many ways for white people to deal with their racism. The white status quo is just not one of them.

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  4. Matt Parker says:

    Yeah, I love Republican’s sudden concern about a politician’s behavior in the early 80s. This is a pretty illuminating scandal, IMHO.

    1. Republicans appoint Kavanaugh.
    2. Troubling early 80s behavior is revealed
    3. GOP rallies and defends him as this was all in the past, and his life since makes it ok.
    vs.
    1. Democrats elect Northam
    2. Troubling early 80s behavior is revealed
    3. Democrats almost universally call for accountability and the resignation of said Democrat.
    Hmm.

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  5. Kathy says:

    Maybe there’s too much a culture of blame and retribution. Given that, he should resign, for the reasons Steven gave as an answer.

    And given this kind of culture, someone ought to gather all video, audio, and photo evidence of Dennison saying, doing, or condoning racist things, and demand his resignation.

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  6. @Jay L Gischer:

    At the time that annual was produced, few would have called that behavior racist. The notion that blackface might be offensive was not widely known to white people. Stupid us

    I am only 9ish years younger than Northam, and so remember the 1980s (granted in 84 I had moved from Texas to SoCal). I think that this was known to be racist at the time–it is just that whites didn’t care that it was racist (hence, making it even more racist).

    KKK robes would clearly have been considered racist in 1984. Blackface might have been laughed off, but it would have been known to a racist joke.

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  7. I remember white kids telling racist jokes when I was in elementary school in the 1970s (they always used the n-word). I knew they were racist then–it is just that racism was more acceptable.

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  8. Lynn says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And you were a child, not 25 and in med school.

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  9. Slugger says:

    @Jay L Gischer: I would have called dressing in KKK gear racist in 1984, and many others would have also. The KKK was a racist terrorist organization from the day it was founded; that was not a secret; they took pride in it. They were racist in 1880. They were racist when they marched in South Bend in the 1920’s. Racism was a big social issue in the 1960’s. Northam was not a child when this happened; naivety is not a believable excuse. This picture was taken twenty years after the murders in Philadelphia, MS, by the KKK. Everybody knew the nature of that organization.

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  10. @Lynn: Exactly.

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  11. Kathy says:

    Apropos of this latest kerfuffle, does anyone remember Billy Crystal used to do impressions of Sammy Davis Jr. on Saturday night Live around the same era? As I recall, he wore makeup to match.

    Impressions of famous people are a time-honored tradition in comedy, but was that racist? If so, absent makeup would it still be racist? FWIW, it was a pretty good impression.

    A few years earlier, Eddie Murphy did a short film (not a sketch) also in SNL, in which he wore makeup and prosthetics to pass as white. Here’s video of it (with some extra commentary).

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  12. grumpy realist says:

    Also I suspect the reaction would have been very different had Northam, even before running for office, had gone to the head of the NAACP, exposed the picture, and said “Look, I’m really really sorry that I did this. I was an idiot back then. What can I do to make up for this? If you think I shouldn’t run for office, please let me know.” If he had created a good history of working with American-African groups and had volunteered the revelation, there’s a good chance that it would have all blown over.

    It was his leaving this like an undiscovered rotting corpse stashed in the back of the cellar for someone to trip over (plus his panic-stricken and contradictory stories) that has caused this tsunami of indignation.

    As they always say–it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. Also–dude–how old were you in that picture? Didn’t you have even a little wee hint of thinking that this might Not Be A Smart Thing To Do? We’re perfectly happy to slap ghetto minority kids into jail and treat them as adults under the law when they’re 12 years old, for chrissakes–isn’t it a bit hypocritical for us to blow off the behaviour of an upper-class white guy when he’s in his mid-20s, saying “boys will be boys”?

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @grumpy realist:
    Always control the narrative.

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  14. Mister Bluster says:

    Let’s play Ask a Republican

    …grab them by the pussy!

    a.) undiscovered rotting corpse
    b.) locker-room talk

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  15. Eric Florack says:

    So now what is to be said about the picture of Bill and Hillary Clinton?

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  16. Hal_10000 says:

    @Kathy:

    I think there’s a clear difference between that and blackface, which is what I think Northam was trying to say with his Michael Jackson thing. It’s one thing to imitate a person of another race as an homage or parody. You ARE walking a VERY fine line. But to appear in blackface with someone in a Klan hood is a very very different thing (especially given the history of blackface).

    From my perspective: in Coming to America, Eddie Murphy put on makeup to play Saul, a Jewish man with some stereotypical traits. I wasn’t offended because the parody was gentle (and funny). If, however, he appeared a holocaust victim with someone in Nazi uniform to get a laugh, that would have been very different.

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  17. douglast says:

    @Eric Florack: There is no Clintons in blackface photo. That was debunked years ago.
    https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/hillary-clinton-blackface-photo/

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  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Eric Florack: Nothing. It appears to be a lying lie told by lying liar conservatives who make up stuff and use that stuff to tell lies.

    Link

    BTW: I’m not calling you one of those lying liars. You are merely a dupe who is too blinded by your hatred to do minimal research (in this case 30 seconds, and not even using Google–I use Cortana on my laptop for this type of search so I don’t get my windows mixed up).

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  19. Robert says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I agree completely. I attended a predominately white suburban high school in the 80s and blackface was never trendy. As an AA, I experienced a couple of racial incidents and there were students who lacked some sensitivty toward minorities. However Blackface or jokes about the klan never surfaced. I would say that the majority of my upper middle class conservative Republican (parents) Reagan voting southern military classmates knew that blackface was offensive and a line that you do not cross.

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  20. @Just nutha ignint cracker: Indeed. Citing that fake example is an indication of the online circles in which one swims. Not doing a quite search to see if it is real is likely indicative of one’s credulity or one’s belief system (or both).

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  21. Gustopher says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Also I suspect the reaction would have been very different had Northam, even before running for office, had gone to the head of the NAACP, exposed the picture, and said “Look, I’m really really sorry that I did this. I was an idiot back then. What can I do to make up for this? If you think I shouldn’t run for office, please let me know.”

    Forgiving white folks for their racist transgressions doesn’t really seem like the responsibility of the NAACP.

    We’re perfectly happy to slap ghetto minority kids into jail and treat them as adults under the law when they’re 12 years old, for chrissakes–isn’t it a bit hypocritical for us to blow off the behaviour of an upper-class white guy when he’s in his mid-20s, saying “boys will be boys”?

    I think maybe we shouldn’t be treating minority kids as adults, and start treating them more like white kids — give them opportunities to grow, and to show that they have grown.

    On the other hand, if some upper class white guy ends up having to settle for second best occasionally, because there are consequences to their youthful behavior that’s hardly the greatest injustice in the world.

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  22. Kylopod says:

    @Hal_10000: There isn’t really an equivalent to “blackface” for Jews–there isn’t some long American tradition of Gentiles dressing as Jews and doing exaggerated impressions that draw upon offensive stereotypes. Imagine something like that existed–a genre in American film and theater where goyim would don big-nose masks and start talking about loving money and running the world, while the audience laughs. Then you might have second thoughts about Eddie Murphy’s Jewish Old Man, even if the routine in itself seemed totally benign.

    It’s that long, racist history of blackface that makes many people think it should be off-limits altogether, even when it’s done in a relatively innocuous way as in an impression of a particular black celebrity. Granted there isn’t a total consensus on that (SNL has had several impersonations of famous black people by white comedians, as in Darrell Hammond’s Jesse Jackson), but it’s where the idea comes from. For that matter nobody takes offense at Eddie Murphy’s various costumes where he imitates white people (not just Jews). There’s just no history there that would really lead anyone to interpret such impressions as offensive.

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  23. Gustopher says:

    @Lynn: Some people take longer to grow up than others, and I don’t think we ever really finish.

    Northam should resign. Not because of what he did thirty years ago, but because of his behavior in the last few days.

    He might have, by accepting responsibility and by being honest and genuinely contrite, shown that he had changed since then and put it into context where it was less worse. It would have been hard, but I think it was doable. He chose a different path.

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  24. grumpy realist says:

    @Gustopher: Who else would you have suggested? Jesse Jackson? Al Sharpton?

    At least the dialog would have been started, even if the NAACP had told him “erm, we don’t think we’re the right people for this. Go talk to those guys over there.”

    (And yeah, I’d be much happier if we were less strict with juveniles myself as well. I just get indignant at the hypocrisy.)

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  25. Kylopod says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I’m not calling you one of those lying liars. You are merely a dupe who is too blinded by your hatred to do minimal research

    Last year I caught Florack spreading an outright hoax, and after I showed him it was a hoax, he just continued on defending it anyway–without explanation of course.

    He’s either a liar, or he’s delusional bordering on psychosis. I’m through with trying to reason with him, which is like trying to reason with a tree. The only thing worth doing is debunking his false claims when he makes them–and leaving it at that.

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  26. Franklin says:

    @Kylopod: I caught him on something, too, with proof. No apology ever, of course. Just pretends like it never happened next time he opens his trap.

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  27. grumpy realist says:

    oh lord. Lifted from a thread over at Balloon Juice, where someone quoted a Twitter feed:

    STORY: Northam, hunkered down w advisers, is refusing to quit, making case he does not think it was him in the photo. And he’s desperate to prove it, even suggesting he’ll use facial recognition software. But some Va Dems say it’s too late, he must go.

    ….facial recognition software. On a guy with a KKK hood over his head?

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  28. Gustopher says:

    @grumpy realist: I don’t think any of them have a moral authority to say “Yes, Mr. Northam, you’re no longer a racist ass, and here’s a certificate.”

    Now, from a political view, he risked this coming out before the election, which effectively means that he was gambling with the futures of a whole lot of people who were not him — the Republican would have had very different healthcare policies, etc. That’s like John Edwards running for President with a secret family. Or Trump running with the Stormy Daniels’ thing … ok, we all knew he was a scumbag.

    I would put that as a separate transgression though. You don’t take large, unnecessary risks where other people will pay the consequences. But, I’m not sure where we should draw the line. There’s always something in a person’s past that is unsavory.

    I remember after Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor of New York, the newly promoted governor (Patterson?) immediately cleared the air by explaining all of his extramarital affairs, and that was just TMI. But, maybe it was all fine for a Lt. Governor to have that ready to be exposed at any moment, but not fine for a Governor.

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  29. Gustopher says:

    @Gustopher: Thinking a bit more…

    I have anxiety problems. They are under control — except when they aren’t, and then I let all sorts of things in my life slide and fall apart. A once every few years moderate flake out.

    I’m also a software engineer, who is a bit bored with technology for technology’s sake. I want to do something that actually makes a difference in people’s lives.

    I was considering going to law school, so I went, did the LSAT, started my apps, and then it finally dawned on me that the consequence of flaking out in my current career is… eh, a project is late and a few people are annoyed with me. The consequences of a lawyer flaking out are much worse for other people.

    So, I didn’t go off to law school and become a lawyer. I’m ok with that decision — it was the right decision, and I just donate a lot of money to food banks and help people indirectly. I’ve gotten better about not completely flaking out, so maybe it would be fine now, but that ship has passed. (Also, suffering is fungible, so helping those people with money is just as good as helping other people directly, and possibly more effective)

    I think my anxiety problems are a lot like Northam’s 30 year old picture of himself in either blackface or a KKK uniform. Alone, neither says anything about the person as they are now, but it limits opportunities.

    If he really wanted to run for Governor anyway, he should have prepared his response (I am imagining a focus group of voters three states over, with a fake governor candidate, so they can try out different responses), and then had a press conference (or leaked it to the press and responded, depending on what that focus group preferred). It was reckless for him to run with this ready to drop.

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  30. grumpy realist says:

    @Gustopher: Effing right.

    (I also am scratching my head about the stupidity of the man. What did he think? That all the yearbooks had already been eaten by mice and no one would ever notice?)

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  31. dennis says:

    @Kylopod:

    There isn’t really an equivalent to “blackface” for Jews–there isn’t some long American tradition of Gentiles dressing as Jews and doing exaggerated impressions that draw upon offensive stereotypes.

    Actually, the caricature of the “evil greedy Jew” has been around for decades. The sneering, hand-wringing Jewish male with the big nose and squinting suspicious leer is just one. I don’t know your age, but, do you remember the Simon bar Sinister character in the old “Underdog” cartoon? Yeah, white America has been demonizing the “other” since Shay’s Rebellion.

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  32. Hal_10000 says:

    @Kylopod:

    There isn’t really an equivalent to “blackface” for Jews

    There is a very looong tradition of stereotyped images of Jews with big noses, curly hair, big beards and grasping hands. It’s not as ubiquitous in American history as blackface, but it’s quite prominent. Indeed, we know this because of some the Alt Rite morons following Trump use those images from time to time.

    That having been said, yes, the historical background of blackface is a big part of both why it’s offensive and why many whites are ignorant of why it’s offensive (because they’re ignorant of the history).

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  33. Kylopod says:

    @dennis:

    Actually, the caricature of the “evil greedy Jew” has been around for decades.

    I never said otherwise. I was talking about a genre of dressing up as a Jew in costume in order to mock them. There really is no such tradition in America, and Gentile actors play Jewish characters all the time with no one blinking an eye. There is an issue in how to deal with an anti-Semitic depiction of a Jew in literature such as Fagin or Shylock–but that’s a different story, and most of the time it’s handled with reasonable prudence.

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  34. dennis says:

    @Kylopod:

    I wasn’t criticizing, K. The caricature just popped in my head as I read your post.

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  35. Jake says:
  36. Gustopher says:

    @Hal_10000:

    There is a very looong tradition of stereotyped images of Jews with big noses, curly hair, big beards and grasping hands. It’s not as ubiquitous in American history as blackface, but it’s quite prominent.

    People didn’t dress up as Jews and then sing and dance, and play musical instruments for entertainment. Well, except for Macklemore.

    https://forward.com/schmooze/198449/macklemore-dresses-up-as-stereotypical-jew/

    It’s a different racist tradition.

    I have no idea which is a more hurtful racist tradition. I could make arguments for each.

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  37. Kari Q says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    At the time that annual was produced, few would have called that behavior racist. The notion that blackface might be offensive was not widely known to white people. Stupid us.

    No, no, no, no, no. Even if we were to let him off for blackface because of ignorance (I wouldn’t, but opinions might differ) the Klan robe cannot be so easily hand waved away. The racist connotations of the Klan were never acceptable in my lifetime, and I’m only a little younger than Northam. The conjunction of the two is clearly racist and everyone knew that at the time.

    Personal history: My great-grandfather was in the Klan in the 1920s. I didn’t know about till about 10 years ago, because the information was suppressed. So how did I find out? My grandmother, his daughter, had cognitive decline and began to talk about things she used to know not to mention. And even so, she insisted that he joined the Klan in 20s because “it was about Catholics then, not race.” (and yeah, I’m not sure how it’s okay to be anti-Catholic, but that’s what she said). Even my 95 year old senile grandmother knows that the Klan robe is going to make people think you’re a racist and you need to have some defense against that claim.

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  38. Roger says:

    No one who came of age in the 70s or 80s could possibly have thought it was ok to have somebody dressed as a member of the Klan as part of a joke. I mean, it’s not like Mel Brooks used this joke in Blazing Saddles(1974), or Richard Pryor in Bustin Loose (1981) and again in The Toy (1982), or the clowns who made Porky’s II (1983), or Chevy Chase in Fletch Lives (1989–granted, after the yearbook photo). And no one in that time period would have dreamed of having white actors in black makeup—not Gene Wilder in Silver Streak (1976), or Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places (1983), or whoever it was in Soul Man (1986). (I’m not sure how we count Billy Crystal donning makeup to play Sammy Davis Jr on SNL in 1984.)

    My point is not that this wasn’t racist. America was pretty racist in the 80s and remains pretty racist today. My point is that anybody who says nobody thought this was funny in the 80s must not have been there. Maybe Northam was a horrible unmitigated racist in 1984. Maybe he was a socially stunted med student with a lousy sense of humor. Maybe he was something else. I doubt that anyone here knows which it was, or how he’s changed since then. I mean, I was a libertarian in 1984, which is almost as shameful as being a racist and now I’m damn near a socialist. As George Carlin said, “You know, you grow.”

    I’m tired of Democrats eating their own because of the failure to meet a retrospective purity test. As it happens I think the Gov should resign, not because he was a racist 30 years ago but because his response suggests that either he’s still a racist, or he’s incompetent, or both. But if he had shown sincere regret and has had a solid civil rights record since, I don’t see it. There ought to be room for people to grow.

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  39. Kari Q says:

    @Roger:

    My point is not that this wasn’t racist. America was pretty racist in the 80s and remains pretty racist today. My point is that anybody who says nobody thought this was funny in the 80s must not have been there.

    I do wish people would use this approach if they’re going to try to defend him. Say this isn’t serious enough to call for a resignation, or whatever. But don’t pretend he didn’t know it was racist. He did.

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  40. DrDaveT says:

    @Roger:

    I mean, I was a libertarian in 1984, which is almost as shameful as being a racist

    This alone would have earned the upvote.

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  41. Kylopod says:

    @Roger:

    No one who came of age in the 70s or 80s could possibly have thought it was ok to have somebody dressed as a member of the Klan as part of a joke. I mean, it’s not like Mel Brooks used this joke in Blazing Saddles(1974), or Richard Pryor in Bustin Loose (1981) and again in The Toy (1982), or the clowns who made Porky’s II (1983), or Chevy Chase in Fletch Lives (1989–granted, after the yearbook photo). And no one in that time period would have dreamed of having white actors in black makeup—not Gene Wilder in Silver Streak (1976), or Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places (1983), or whoever it was in Soul Man (1986). (I’m not sure how we count Billy Crystal donning makeup to play Sammy Davis Jr on SNL in 1984.)

    You are lumping several things together that are completely different in context. Not all instances of blackface or the use of Klan costume as a joke are created equal. Blazing Saddles was satirizing racism. Billy Crystal didn’t imitate Sammy Davis by dumping a load of shoe polish on his face, he made some effort to actually look like him. Wilder’s blackface routine in Silver Streak and the entirety of Soul Man have not aged well, but neither was intended to be racist, and it’s possible to understand what both films were aiming at in context.

    Now, go back to the Northam picture. Donning M Jackson clothing while shmearing shoe polish on one’s face, and standing next to a guy in a Klan hood? If it’s a joke, one must ask, what’s the message of the joke? It’s not a genuine homage to Jackson, nor is it a dig at racism. It’s pure racist provocation, and really isn’t anything like the examples you gave–which, let’s be clear, can still be criticized, but that doesn’t mean they are all the same.

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  42. Gustopher says:

    @Kylopod:

    Now, go back to the Northam picture. Donning M Jackson clothing while shmearing shoe polish on one’s face, and standing next to a guy in a Klan hood? If it’s a joke, one must ask, what’s the message of the joke? It’s not a genuine homage to Jackson, nor is it a dig at racism.

    Um… the blackface guy in the picture is not supposed to resemble Michael Jackson. That was a different instance of blackface.

    Ok, here’s the joke of dressing in offensive blackface or a Klan constume — it’s over the top ridiculous racism that makes people uncomfortable. It’s funny either because no one will dare do anything about it, or because everyone knows the folks under the costume are the nicest, kindest,
    least racist people around. Or both. And it’s funny because it is so out of place.

    It’s classic juvenile trolling.

    “Dude, I found my racist grandfather’s Klan outfit”
    “Dude… that’s … wow.”
    “Hey, Becky has that Halloween party coming up.”
    “Grand Wizard Becky?”
    “That’s the one. What do you think of my costume?”
    “Dude, that’s awesome.”
    “Do you know what would go great with this?”
    “What?”
    “Blackface.”
    “Dude…. awesome.”

    It’s pushing every button. And, it requires not knowing any black people, or any thought about how it would look to someone else who is not inclined to see the humor.

    Ok, how about this? It would be like going to a business meeting dressed in a bear suit, and claiming you’re transitioning when you’re questioned on it, and then shifting the topic right back to the meeting. Over and over. You see the bear suit and think it’s funny, but you don’t think about the transgender person who works one cube over because you’re stuck at how hysterical the bear suit is.

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  43. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Robert: I grew up in Seattle in the late 60s. Going to a game with one of the predominantly minority schools (there were about 4 in what some people feel was one of the most redlined cities on the West Coast) in Blackface was a good way to end up in the emergency room–or morgue. Even so (or possibly because of) there wasn’t much of that kind of thing even at Halloween. A few hobos here and there but no out right Blackface stuff that I can recall. I did work with a few guys who moved to smaller towns that were all white when school integration became common, though, so there was enough racism to go around.

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  44. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kylopod: The part of the comment you quoted was not about reasoning with Bithead, it was about making sure that no one would think me unkind for calling him a liar. Allowing the benefit of the doubt (even though I’m not at all that credulous), if you will. YMMV.

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