In American politics, lawmakers can get a pass for almost anything short of open allegiance to racist ideologies or the explicit use of racist imagery.
There is a logic to this dynamic, even as it produces absurd results, like forceful condemnations of racism from a Virginia Republican Party that fielded an unapologetic neo-Confederate for Senate just over three months ago or calls for Northam’s resignation from a Republican National Committee that otherwise stands firmly behind President Trump.
Put simply, there is a plausible (in theory, at least) nonracist reading of King’s preoccupation with the preservation of “Western civilization” or the president’s belief that some countries, like Haiti, are “shitholes” whose residents should be kept off American soil. By contrast, blackface is an unambiguous form of racist mockery with clear origins in the virulent white supremacist history of the United States.
The most popular form of entertainment in 19th-century America, which continued well into the 20th, blackface minstrelsy was defined by its caricature of and gross hostility toward black Americans. In the minstrel show, blacks — and free blacks in particular — were objects of ridicule, lampooned for seeking equality and respectability. Beyond simple mockery, the pleasure of blackface for white performers and their audiences lay in the vicarious experience of an imagined blackness — a wild, preindustrial “savage” nature that whites attributed to black Americans.
“Painting oneself hearkened back to traditional popular celebrations and to paint oneself as a Black person, given American realities at the time, was to throw reason to the winds,” the historian David Roediger wrote in his 1991 book, “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.” He notes later that blackface was a form that “implicitly rested on the idea that Black culture and Black people existed only insofar as they were edifying for whites and that claims to ‘authentic’ blackness could be put on and washed off at will.”
In other words, blackface is so thoroughly associated with the worst of American racism that we should expect immediate condemnation of politicians and public figures who have any association with it, even if it’s a decades-old offense.
But this high bar for sanction — essentially a “pics or it didn’t happen” standard for racism — is also a problem. It treats expressions of racist contempt or mockery as the most egregious forms of racism, when that distinction should belong to the promotion of racist policies and ideas. [Continue reading…]