• February 19, 2019

Virginia gov’s blackface admission reveals state of race relations - Odessa American: Texas Opinion

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Virginia gov’s blackface admission reveals state of race relations

THE POINT: It’s a time for reflection on what America was, what it is, and what it can become.

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Posted: Monday, February 11, 2019 3:00 am

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam should have resigned when he first admitted posing in blackface while he was a student at Eastern Virginia Medical School. The revelation prompted immediate calls for him to step down from all sectors of his state. It also poured water on the notion that America can transcend racism without confronting its roots.

Northam a day later took back the apology he made Friday for appearing in a 1984 yearbook photo of two individuals holding beer cans at a party, one in blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. The governor denied he was either person, but said he did remember darkening his face with shoe polish to impersonate Michael Jackson at a dance contest in San Antonio that same year.

Thirty-five years ago isn’t ancient history. It certainly isn’t so long ago that Northam should be confused about how many times he put on blackface. Twenty years after demonstrators marched against segregation, Northam should have known there’s nothing innocent about mimicking minstrel show entertainers who artificially darkened their skin to depict stereotypical images of black life.

Minstrel shows began before the Civil War and persisted well past the civil rights era. A 1982 profile of Panhandle Sheriff Rufe Jordan by Texas Monthly Reporter fondly recalled when he would put on black face to sing Irish songs in the Pampa Lions Club minstrel show.

The uncovering of Northam’s racist behavior three decades later comes at a time when America is struggling to counter efforts to preserve monuments that glorify Confederate generals and other cultural icons that promote racial division rather than unity.

Recognizing the need to address its past, the student government association at the University of Texas debated last April whether to retire its alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas,” because it was introduced at a Varsity Minstrel Show in 1903. The UT song kept its status, but Northam’s case is another matter. His position isn’t merely symbolic.

As governor, Northam’s job is to bring the people of his state together and many Virginians no longer think he can. The College of William & Mary rescinded its invitation for Northam to attend the inauguration of its president, Katherine Rowe, who said his behavior “stands in stark opposition to William & Mary’s core values of equity and inclusion.”

Some Republicans have been reveling in the fact that a Democrat is accused of racist behavior, but this isn’t a moment for more of the partisan rancor crippling Washington. It’s a time for reflection on what America was, what it is, and what it can become — if only it would look at itself with clear eyes.

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