The racist photo on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) yearbook page turns my thoughts to a little-discussed contributor to racial injustice in America: the enabler. Enablers are the ones who — rather than risk losing friendships or contacts, or out of a desire for social inclusion, or maybe because they agree with the racist act — play it safe and silently stand by as it occurs.
In 1984, no white person in his or her right mind would have posted a photo of a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe on the campus bulletin board of Virginia Union University, the historically black university in Richmond. Neither would he or she have tried to send a photo of two people wearing symbols of white hate and black degradation to a Virginia NAACP meeting or place it in the hymnal of an African American church. They would have known better; those offensive racist images would have provoked ferocious outrage.
But in 1984, it was quite all right to place that photo in the yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School, with its overwhelmingly white student body.
The wearers of blackface and Klan robes could feel comfortable in that crowd, at that time. Behavior that would have been unacceptable on a black college campus or at black church services was quite all right, because it was done in the company of people who enabled it to take place.
Northam’s yearbook page is not the only one at issue.
Several news organizations have examined the same yearbook. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reproduced a photo from it showing a man dressed up like a woman in a low-cut white dress, pearls, a black wig and blackface. The caption refers to a song by the Supremes: “ ‘Baby Love,’ who ever thought Diana Ross would make it to Medical School!” CNN reported that a different photo of three men appeared on the page before Northam’s personal page — with all of the men in blackface and wearing white dresses, white gloves, pearls and wigs. Retired Roanoke doctor Michael Breiner said that he was the one in the photo with blackface presenting himself as Ross. Said Breiner: “And do I regret it now? Yeah, because it’s a different time. This was 35 years ago.” An answer fully embraced by enablers.
And Eastern Virginia Medical School is not alone.
Comes now Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who fessed up to attending a party in blackface as a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia in 1980.
Blatantly racist displays at Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School and Herring’s U-Va. drew no rebukes when they occurred. No one was censured.
Northam said he wore blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume in a dance contest in San Antonio. The judges weren’t put off by blackface. Instead of kicking him out of the contest, they made Northam the winner. That’s what enablers do.
Now, it’s possible that some people may have found racist photos and dancing in blackface to be amusing. Others may have been blasé about the whole thing. Either way, it was no skin off their backs. They weren’t targets. They were white. Enablers aren’t harmed in the least.
When Africans arrived on these shores against their will from across the Atlantic, enablers were there. They weren’t slave traders. Enablers weren’t necessarily slave owners. They didn’t instigate the lynchings.
They just faithfully observed ugly customs of the day when it came to blacks.
Thus, much later, they saw nothing wrong with “whites only” and “colored” water fountains or businesses with “whites only” signs.
Enablers weren’t bothered one bit by separate store entrances or segregated schools — or if they were, they wouldn’t dare let on. Either way, restrictions on blacks posed no problems for enablers. It was more important to uphold mean-spirited customs over human dignity. That’s probably the enablers’ code.
And enablers are with us now.
Enablers populate states where legislatures enact onerous election restrictions and voter identification laws to disenfranchise their black electorate.
Enablers in North Carolina watched as their state in 2016 cut back on early voting on Sundays — which was popular with black churches. Enablers kept their mouths shut when North Carolina admitted in court that the cutback was done because Sunday early voters tended to be disproportionately black and Democratic.
Enablers pretend not to hear reports of racist language and symbols on college campuses.
They scoff at notions of white male privilege and racial bias in policing.
Enablers don’t challenge claims that diversity hurts white people or that blacks would be as well off as whites if they would try harder.
Why was no fuss kicked up in 1984 about those blackface photos and Klan uniforms?
And why is racism alive today?
Ask the enablers.
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