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I’m about two years older than Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, 59, and I’ve never put on blackface makeup — not as a high school or college student, not as a young adult, not ever.

Neither have any of my friends to my knowledge. And I’ve never been to a costume party where someone came in blackface.

Not that I’ve always been ostentatiously enlightened on the subject. I can’t remember having a conversation or even giving it any thought in the mid-1980s — when, as we’ve learned, Northam used shoe polish to darken his white skin thinking it would be entertaining — about how poisonous and offensive blackface is to African-Americans.

Yes, the subject was occasionally in the news back then. African-American actor and dancer Ben Vereen raised eyebrows and a bit of ire when he performed in blackface at the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan, with the anger magnified because the portion of his act that highlighted the connection between blackface and racist exploitation of blacks was not included in the TV broadcast.

White students who wore blackface makeup to a 1982 “Ghetto Function” fraternity party at an Oregon university avoided suspension by participating in a cultural awareness program, according to another story from the archives. A police officer in Baltimore was consigned to desk duty for having an off-hours gig where he put on blackface and performed as Al Jolson.

The Chicago Tribune barely mentioned the subject in the early-’80s, and most of the references in The New York Times were mild asides in the paper’s arts coverage — a 1981 dramatic review noted that the blackface was “unevenly and inexpertly applied,” while a 1982 review of a ballet performance observed that the use of blackface “recalls a sensibility no longer valid.”

In 1986, Hollywood released “Soul Man,” a feature-length comedy about a white man who darkens his skin to receive a law school scholarship reserved for black students.

Meanwhile, a former Ku Klux Klan officer — Robert Byrd of West Virginia — was the highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, while the highest ranking Republican was South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, who’d run for president in 1948 railing against the admission of “the negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.”

This was the cultural milieu in which Northam decided it would be a good idea to blacken up in order to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest (he now denies being in the 1984 medical school yearbook photo on his page that shows one person in blackface and another in a Klansman’s hood).

Those calling for Northam’s resignation who indignantly note that his offense occurred in 1984, not 1954, are romanticizing how woke the public was in 1984.

I’m inclined to chalk up Northam’s decision to obliviousness rather than racism, particularly in light of his public record on race in the intervening 35 years, which even most of his African-American critics concede has been exemplary.

It is an obliviousness rooted in white privilege conferred by systemic racism, to be sure. And it often manifests itself as insensitivity — hence the ongoing need for cultural-awareness initiatives.

Those who do not live as African-Americans, American Indians, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, LGBTQ people or other minorities can be poor judges of what’s amusing to them or what they will take as compliments.

And ask any woman you know about manifestations of male privilege.

Entertainers in blackface ridiculed and often infantilized African-Americans and perpetuated their subjugation. This history is so toxic that intent can never justify its use, as actor Ted Danson learned when he was widely vilified for attempting to honor his then-girlfriend, African-American star Whoopi Goldberg, by wearing blackface for a skit in 1993.

But Danson has been allowed to return to respectability, as has Billy Crystal, who came under fire for darkening his face to imitate Sammy Davis Jr. for a bit at the 2012 Academy Awards show.

And so — given his expressions of remorse and lack of evidence of similar misdeeds in the intervening 35 years — should Northam.

Even given his bizarre performance at Saturday’s news conference and the strange evolution of his story about the Klansman photo, he’s entitled to the forgiveness and second chance he’s asked for.

Yes, he inadvertently and retrospectively caused pain to African-Americans by thoughtlessly wearing blackface in the mid-1980s. But if he has to resign for that, so should every politician of either party who supports holidays and public displays that honor the Confederacy, honors that cause ongoing pain to African-Americans.

So should Republicans who aren’t calling for the resignation of white supremacist U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and of avowed female-genital-grabbing President Donald Trump.

The public is likely to realize this once the Next Big Outrage heaves into view and the pundits mount their high horses to charge after it.

Virginia is not facing an emergency that demands a new governor today. If a month from now it still looks as if he can’t be an effective governor or if the bill of particulars against him has grown, then yes, he should quit.

But not yet. Not for this.

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Eric Zorn writes for the Chicago Tribune.


(16) comments


Has Bill Clinton weighed in yet on this matter?


Obviousness, not racism, is probably a reasonable assessment for the stupid things young men do and say. I wonder, however, whether the columnist’s opinion would be different if said Governor wasn’t a Democrat. We he dismiss a high school yearbook photo as obliviousness if the person pictured were a Republican? Somehow I think his response would be different. No doubt, there are people scouring old yearbooks looking for other transgressions committed by political rivals. Why?


It seems to be (correct me if I am wrong) the only major politician to suffer serious consequences from the "Me Too" movement was Democratic Senator Al Franken. Meanwhile our president, who has been accused of much more serious offenses by many more women, continues in office. All of us have done things in our past we regret and are ashamed of. Trump has done plenty, and they were done recently (2006) when he was 60 years old. Why is it Franken was forced to resign by Democrats and Republicans don't seem to care about Trump? Who are the hypocrites?


Do you believe Al Franken should NOT have resigned?


I believe if Franken resigned then Trump should have also resigned.


Let’s see a photo of Trump doing something like Al did, it’s called proof. Most of the allegations against Trump are lies by liberals


Oh my! A tape recording of Trump bragging about what he did is not sufficient for you?


Right. All those women are out to get poor Donald Trump. You are ridiculous.


The climax-hoaxer and an inability to fix stupidity and the act of simply being stupid, coupled with a severe case of dementia and Alzheimers. That is the kind of answer the geezer is gonna give.


Absolutely it would be different if he were a Republican. That’s why this sh$t shone by the Dems is AWESOME


Perhaps I resided under a rock ,but never heard or was aware of "blackface", ever in me life. It"s seems like ,to many , it is a new thing.


I understand Democrats wanting him to step down. The appearance of fairness an inclusivity is important. But I don't understand Republicans calling for a resignation. Many, many of my conservative friends expressed the idea that they did not care what Trump had done prior to becoming President. As it goes for one politician, it shall go for all lest the term "hypocrite" be bandied about.


Prove what Trump supposedly did


He proved it himself, Climate, by bragging on tape about what he did. It is verified by women he physically assaulted.


oh climate boy, don't you know about Trump's payouts to women to keep silent, and then lie about it over and over. His bragging about assaulting women on tape is total proof. Is Trump a racists, he sure shows it. The klan and white nationals are "fine people" to him. He proclaims he is a nationalist! Does he ever address the rights of minorities, especially when they are being gunned down by rogue police? Oh Hoaxer you need to get out more.


well noting but crickets again from the hoaxer man. Guess he run out of goofiness to share. Once he gets another load of BS it should be entertaining to see.

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