Before Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) was forced to issue a job-saving apology for a blackface photo on his 1984 yearbook page, state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat, took a different approach to his own controversy. The prominent member of New York’s Orthodox Jewish community defended his basketball-player costume of blackface and an Afro wig while celebrating the holiday of Purim in 2013, calling the criticism “political correctness to the absurd.”
A year later, Washington state mayoral candidate David Sponheim explained to outraged critics that he had to paint his face black to bring authenticity to his Barack Obama costume, arguing that black people can dress up as whites without backlash, such as in the 2004 comedy “White Chicks.” And in 2015, Bill Helton, a mayoral candidate in Oklahoma, responded to critics of his blackface drag performance as “Pollyester Kotton” by insisting that he isn’t racist.
"I’ve got great, great friends who are African American,” he said.
The history of blackface in American politics is wide and deep, frequently creating little more than a ripple of outrage for the mayors, state legislators and gubernatorial candidates caught on camera darkening their skin and caricaturing black people. These politicians — from the North and the South, from urban and rural areas, Democrats and Republicans — have defended their actions as benign parody and accused their critics of being humorless and hypersensitive. Most have not faced lasting — or any — political repercussions for engaging in the uniquely American form of racism.
Hikind retired five years later after more than three decades as a New York assemblyman. Sponheim has launched a third-party presidential bid. Helton won the race for mayor. Then he won again.
But the national spotlight on the controversy in Virginia may be changing the dialogue on blackface, said Mia Moody-Ramirez, the director of Baylor University’s American studies department.
“We may be at a tipping point, because of what we’re seeing with politicians having actual consequences,” Moody-Ramirez said. “It’s heavily covered in the media. And it’s no longer okay to say, ‘If I wear these, I’m just being funny. People know my heart.’”
Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, both Democrats, have admitted that they wore blackface as students in the 1980s in imitation of famous African Americans. And in 1968, Virginia Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., a Republican, was an editor of a college yearbook filled with blackface photos. This month, the blackface controversy shifted to Mississippi, where both the Democratic and Republican primary front-runners in the race for governor have been questioned about their association with college fraternities where students routinely donned blackface and dressed up as slaves and Confederate soldiers.
“I condemn racism,” Republican Lt. Governor Tate Reeves told reporters this week, “because that’s the way I was raised, and I will tell you that that is the way I have governed as lieutenant governor.”
Across town and across the aisle, Attorney General Jim Hood, the Democratic candidate vying for the governor’s office, endured an equally intense spotlight for questions about photos of members of his fraternity in blackface in the 1980s. Hood has called those costumes “inappropriate.”
Both candidates said they are not pictured in the controversial yearbook photos and declined to be interviewed or to comment substantively for this article. Both have told reporters they feel it is time to move on to other issues.
Hood and Reeves have largely escaped the swirl of controversy that surrounds top political leaders in Virginia, where some fellow Democrats have called on Northam to resign. He has sworn to stay in office, and 47 percent of Virginians think he should not step down, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll.
But the threat to his career and others’, political and cultural experts say, may represent an inflection point in Americans’ perception of blackface.
Blackface emerged in the early 1800s, when white actors darkened their faces with burned cork or shoe polish to mimic and stereotype slaves. The comedic device endured, cementing itself in popular culture for nearly 150 years. Even Jim Crow laws, which enforced segregation across the South, were named after a blackface persona.
But for almost as long, there has been opposition to blackface, especially by people who thought that efforts to portray black people as lazy, stupid or hypersexual dovetailed with efforts to strip them of social and political power, said Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California and the author of “Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America.”
Still, today, more than a third of Americans do not think it is offensive for white people to darken their skin for Halloween costumes, according to a study released this week by the Pew Research Center. White adults are about twice as likely as black adults to say Halloween costumes featuring blackface can be acceptable.
But this decade has emboldened people who buck racist narratives and tropes, and social media has let them bring those concerns to a national audience.
That, Armour said, “has sparked a national conversation about our shared symbolic life. What do Confederate monuments mean? What does the Confederate flag mean? Who can buildings be named after?”
That also means that no one particular group has a monopoly on what is considered offensive.
“Are white people who want to put on blackface going to listen to black people who are injured by their expressive conduct?” Armour said. “Are they going to take into consideration people who say, ‘Those images or those words or those costumes wound me, and even if you mean something innocuous by it, it still hurts me and it still offends me. And is that something you’re going to care about?’”
But students of Mississippi’s history and politics say they doubt that the state’s gubernatorial blackface scandal will bring about substantive change. A gubernatorial candidate denounced Confederate-themed balls and blackface photos at Millsaps College and the University of Mississippi, but the state flag still incorporates the Confederate battle flag.
And two months ago, a black candidate for one of Mississippi’s U.S. Senate seats was defeated in a campaign that many said was riddled with veiled racist rhetoric and dog whistles: One candidate had joked about attending a “public hanging” and another used the Confederate battle flag on his campaign signs. For the people who voted for racially controversial candidates, a candidate’s connection to blackface might not be a disqualification.
“We are certainly not a purple state. The political situation in Mississippi is quite different than it is in Virginia,” said James Thomas, a sociology professor at the University of Mississippi. “In Mississippi, it won‘t kill your political career here to say that you wore blackface.”
But that doesn’t mean that a change in attitudes is not occurring, said Kiese Laymon, a writer who attended Millsaps at the same time as Reeves.
He told The Post that the recent controversy may be the first time many fellow alumni understand what it meant for minority students to attend a school where people wore blackface and Confederate uniforms without lasting consequences.
Black students “were expected to be okay with seeing our classmates being dressed up as Confederate soldiers,” said Laymon, who at one point had a run-in with students wearing Afro wigs and Confederate uniforms.
“The expectation was that people could commemorate our suffering and we were expected to be okay with it. . . . What we weren’t okay with was the institution and the region commemorating our suffering, laughing at our suffering.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.