It was just a few months ago, as racist graffiti spread across U.S. campuses, that an Arkansas school board member’s blackface Halloween costume became a symbol of racial outrage.
Ted Bonner, who sits on the school board in tiny Blevins, Ark., had dressed for a party in bib overalls and a straw hat, his face painted black and his lips bright red, recalling minstrel shows of the 19th century.
A photo of him holding a sign — “Blak Lives Matters” — spread virally online.
At the time, Blevins school officials sounded as appalled as anyone. The superintendent said he was embarrassed, but couldn’t fire an elected official.
Today, Bonner still sits on the school board — with a crowd of supporters, his name on a T-shirt and an award for “Outstanding Board Member.”
School let out early Monday, ABC affiliate KATV reported, for a school board meeting at which Bonner was given the training recognition.
The award itself is usually innocuous, and came about somewhat by accident. It’s routine for board members who complete 25 hours of state-mandated training in classes for school finance, community relations and other basics.
“It’s our fault,” said Kristen Garner, an attorney for the Arkansas School Boards Association, which provides the training. “I am fully aware of the irony.”
“It’s a small enameled lapel pin,” she explained. “We encourage the local district to present these to the board member, because it creates a nice photo op,” she said. “It was all generated and sent out before anyone had any idea.”
Garner said she only realized who Bonner was when she saw coverage of Monday’s meeting in the news.
As his blackface photos went viral in November, the Arkansas NAACP demanded that Bonner resign, as did many in town.
Angry residents filled the next school board meeting, at which Bonner gave a defensive apology, according to NBC affiliate KARK.
“I didn’t know there was no such a thing as blackface,” he said. “They made a movie out of white chicks. What’s the difference?”
On Monday, KATV reported, officials expected even more protests when they gave Bonner his pin.
But footage showed many in crowd wearing “I Stand With Ted Bonner” shirts instead.
“Now you see how many people actually stand with him,” one resident wrote on Facebook the next day. “And there is more than just the people . . . there tonight.”
— Haley (@dxingwithhaley) January 10, 2017
Another board member, Carl McGill, told the crowd that his colleague needed to make another apology.
“I was going to ask . . . if he would be willing to stand in front of the whole school, the whole school in the gym, and apologize to everyone, the whole community,” McGill said. “I think he would.”
Garner said the district hired a lawyer this week to help deal with the fallout.
“This continues to be a somewhat volatile situation,” she said.
And it might continue to be.
If Bonner completes another 25 hours of training, he’ll automatically receive the group’s Master Board Member award.
“We will continue to put his name on a list and give him an award, as long as he’s a school board member in the state of Arkansas,” Garner said.
“We probably do need to think harder about how we can do a better job raising awareness of diversity.”
Bonner wasn’t the only educator caught in blackface last year. At the University of Oregon, a law professor was placed on administrative leave after wearing the garb to a Halloween party attended by faculty and students.
Blackface minstrel acts were popular in the 1800s, when working-class white audiences preferred white actors to portray black people.
“At first the blackface character was actually a smart and sympathetic one,” “The Tavis Smiley Show” once observed. “But as time went on, the minstrel show took on a more racist tone.” Blackface characters became comical and stupid, and eventually a symbol for racist stereotypes.
These minstrel shows “presented the black character as being stupid, as being comical, as being basically a frivolous character,” cultural critic Mel Watkins told PBS. “Now, how that impacted upon society itself was that they embraced it. They loved it. This was what people had thought about blacks all along. So [that] characterization of blacks then reaffirmed what mainstream America had been thinking all along.”
“Minstrelsy desensitized Americans to horrors of chattel slavery,” wrote Blair L.M. Kelley, an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University. “These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of Southern slavery. By encouraging audiences to laugh, they showed bondage as an appropriate answer for the lazy, ignorant slave. Why worry about the abolition of slavery when black life looked so fun, silly, and carefree? Even the violence of enslavement just became part of the joke.”
The 2016-2017 school year “opened with an onslaught” of such incidents, The Post’s Susan Svrluga wrote last year.
“A professor at Eastern Michigan University found a racial slur spray-painted on the side of a building on campus along with ‘KKK’ in large letters. A former Kansas State University student shared a photo of herself and a friend with their faces painted black and a racial slur,” Svrluga wrote.
“Students at the University of Michigan found posters on campus warning white women not to date black men. On a wall at Ohio University, someone painted a person hanging from a noose.”