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The Virginia Blackface Farce And The Witch Hunt For Offensive Costumes

You can tell a lot about a person from what they care about—what’s most important to them, what they lose sleep over. And as with people, so with nations.

What does America care about? Well, based off the last few days in the political news landscape, it seems to be politicians dressing in blackface or otherwise pretending to belong to a group to which they don’t belong.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is facing calls to resign from his own party over a med school yearbook photo allegedly showing him dressed in blackface or Ku Klux Klan robes. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has admitted to wearing blackface to a college Halloween party in an attempt to look like one of his favorite rappers. Florida state lawmaker Anthony Sabatini is facing renewed scrutiny over a high school photo in which he wore blackface.

It seems as if every politician’s high school, college, and grad school yearbooks are to be poured over for thoughtless statements, crude jokes, and offensive outfits. No one is safe in an era where even the slightest racial solecism is as condemnatory as actual racial violence.

The framing of the issue of blackface in the media misses the moral nuance of each individual situation. For instance, Northam says he once dressed up as Michael Jackson for a talent show. This appears, more or less, to be a case where Northam was paying homage to the famous singer and dancer, rather than deprecating him or African Americans in general. This is clearly different from Northam’s yearbook photo, which exploits a fraught history of racial violence and discrimination in order to obtain a cheap laugh. To assume Northam had the same intention to disrespect in both instances, and to condemn him for this, is an unfair judgment lacking in clarity.

Moreover, it is not at all clear that Herring or Sabatini were attempting to be offensive. Herring said that he dressed up as a rapper he and his friends enjoyed listening to, while Sabatini said he wore blackface as part of a prank where he and an African American friend dressed to look like one another. There simply isn’t any clear evidence of a moral parity between these cases and Northam’s yearbook photo.

And none of these instances of pretending to be a different race come close to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who recently apologized for marking her race as “American Indian” on a Texas State Bar registration card, and for identifying as Native American while a professor at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. It is much more plausible that Warren used her speculative Native American ancestry to benefit herself professionally; no such motivation is to be found in the Virginia and Florida cases. In fact, it could be argued that monetizing racial identity is a worse crime than being crude for crudeness’ sake, as is the case with Northam’s yearbook photo.

The hubbub over blackface—and to a lesser extent, over Warren—indicate that the American political and journalistic classes care about one issue above all others: racism, and anything having to do with race. Northam’s blatantly immoral comments about post-natal abortion—known colloquially as infanticide—barely evoked a response from the Democratic Party or the mainstream media. Under the current dispensation, any instance of blackface is a crime for which there is no forgiveness.

But on this principle, are we to make unemployed everyone who dressed up as a different race at some point in their lives, regardless of the context? Are we to retroactively condemn and erase the memory of every Shakespearean actor in the history of the theatre who had the unmitigated gall to dress in blackface for the purpose of playing Othello? Laurence Olivier? Orson Welles?

The Salem Witch Trials loom large in the imagination of Americans, even though it belongs to a dark and dusty era in our history. Back then the thing of most importance to the religious settlers of this continent was the salvation of souls, and so they took accusations of collaboration with the Devil with the utmost seriousness. Indeed, they were so fixated on this idea that they indulged in a Satanic panic that costs many Americans—children, even—their lives.

The stakes in Virginia are not nearly as grave. The only thing at stake is the political careers of established adults. But perhaps that should tell us something about ourselves. For we have gone from worrying about the Devil to worrying about offensive costumes. We care more about people’s poor manners than we do abortion.

That should tell us what kind of nation we’ve become.

Written by Tom Worstein

Tom Worstein is a contributor to The Schpiel.

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