Ralph Northam may resign by the time I’m done writing this essay (it’s 9:51 a.m. EST). Nonetheless, he has poked the bear and a few more words need to be said about this blackface/KKK photo incident. You may have reacted as I did on Saturday when Northam, while flip-flopping on whether it was, in fact, him in the blackface/KKK photo, did freely admit to going to a dance contest party and dressing up as Michael Jackson: glove, penny loafers, hat, and, of course, just a line or two of shoe polish (to denote his “blackness”) because “you know how hard it is to get that stuff off?” Apparently, if it weren’t so difficult to remove Shinola he would have gone full blackface! (It also implies he had used the shoe polish before and had a damned hard time removing it!) Forget about whether he allowed the blackface/KKK photo to “grace” his med school yearbook page. He admitted going “partial” blackface for a dance party --- in 1984! That same year the Lovely Carol Marie’s son, Mark, who was 4 or 5 years old at the time, wanted to go out as Michael Jackson for Halloween. All he wanted/needed for a costume was a glove and a hat. He did not ask to be “blacked up.” If a child knew that Michael’s glove and hat was enough to accomplish a Michael Jackson “look,” how is it that a 25-year-old Medical School student didn’t realize that? (And, if we’re going to demand resignations for 30/35-year-old “mistakes,” shouldn’t Mitch McConnell step down for that Confederate Flag photo from years ago?)
An ancillary point, raised by many pundits over the weekend, focused on how Northam, as a physician, treated any patients of color he may have served. Roxanne Jones, on CNN, referred to people like Northam as “undercover bigots” when reporting on the Megyn Kelly story (more on that in a moment) back in October 2018. And I think it’s important we focus on several other recent examples of this kind of racism/white supremacy to remind all of us how close to the surface these "sins" reside in TrumpWorld, where we have a Chief Executive who race baits and espouses policies that clearly target populations of color (immigrants, African-Americans, Muslim-Americans).
It was only on January 24, 2019, that the Secretary of State of Florida resigned because a photo surfaced from a 2005 Halloween Party showing him not only dressed in blackface but wearing a shirt that read “Katrina Victim.” Apparently, Michael Ertel thought it was “funny” that the almost 1400 (mostly Black) people tragically died during that hurricane. This, of course, was a man appointed by the newly-elected Governor Ron DeSantis who, when his gubernatorial race against African-American Andrew Gillum began, stated:
voters should not “monkey this up” by electing his opponent, Andrew Gillum, who would be the state’s first black governor. (NY Times, August 29, 2019)
If that isn’t a racist (Trump-like) dog whistle, what is? In the age of the 24/7 “news cycle” we can quickly forget that an event from only a few weeks ago and we, as news consumers, don’t connect the dots!
We may have also forgotten the recent Senatorial election in Mississippi between Cindy Hyde-White (a White Republican) and Mike Espy (a Black Democrat). On November 2, 2018, Ms. Hyde-White, at a ranch in Tupelo, stated: “If he (the rancher) invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” Given the state of Mississippi’s horrendous history of lynching, the uproar that followed was understandable. Initially, Ms. Hyde-White noted that “the remark (was) an ‘exaggerated expression of regard,’ (and) refused to elaborate . . . when reporters asked for more context.” (Reuters, Nov. 20, 2018) She eventually “apologized” and then beat Espy in a close race. How many of us remember that story?
It might not be surprising, then, that many of us have forgotten how the former Fox News and NBC personality Megyn Kelly resigned from her $69 million job because of her “insensitive” comments just before Halloween 2018. Just to refresh your memory:
But what is racist?" Kelly asked on her show. "Because you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character." (CNN, Oct. 25, 2019)
Let’s keep in mind that this is a woman who, when working for Fox News commented “Jesus was a white man ... as is Santa" claiming “that's just a historical fact .” Really? And just to set the record straight, Megyn Kelly was born in Illinois, raised in upstate New York (degrees from Syracuse and SUNY Albany) and practiced law in Chicago before heading off to broadcast news. In the CNN article about Kelly’s resignation Roxanne Jones coined the phrase “undercover bigots.” such bigotry is not confined to the South and we need to not be distracted by the rapid-fire news cycle.
The Charlottesville “White Power” riot was only in August 2017, yet it seems like ancient history. As the Ralph Northam story dominates our current news cycle, stories from a month ago, or three months ago, have left our consciousness. In the age of the Short-Attention-Span President who relies on “Fox and Friends” for his daily briefing, we over-react to the “news” or the “Tweet” of the moment and lose track of the Big Picture. What has emerged in the Age of Trump is a Second Act for Jim Crow America and, while I’m trying to present essays about how deep-seated our history of white supremacy and racism are, I cannot ignore what is happening in our immediate world. The deep wound of our racist history, the “birth defect” our country was inflicted with starting in 1619 (in Virginia!), is now a seeping lesion that needs to be treated. Those of us who are White need to do an internal inventory to examine our own “undercover bigotry” which, whether we like it or not, resides within. Rather than being defensive, we need to look honestly at that oozing sore as the infection it is, a “birth defect” and an affliction that needs our attention and, in fact, does have a cure.