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Blackface and the American Idea of Race

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The price of scandal

Periodically the American punditocracy convenes on cable TV for a “conversation about race.” But, whether sparked by a celebrity chef’s use of a racial slur, or a Black president’s comment about the shooting of a Black teen, or a white president’s remarks about “fine people on both sides” of a racist march, the conversations about race seem to fade out of the national consciousness as quickly as spring showers, with the phrase “both sides” lingering after them like a bit of precipitation on a pundit’s lip.

Still, dead conversations about race return, first as tragi-comedy, then as farce.

The latest case in point is the national blackface conversation that erupted in February, after Virginia Democratic governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page (complete with a photograph of someone in blackface next to someone in Klan garb), was publicized.

There followed the triple tragi-comedy of Northam’s refusal to resign, of Justin Fairfax, his Democratic lieutenant governor, in turn refusing to step down after two women separately accused him of sexual assault, and, finally, of Mark Herring, the Democratic attorney general and the next in line for the governorship, preemptively announcing that he himself had worn blackface in his youth. All of this and even some of the conversation it sparked would fit in a remake of the old Ingrid Bergman movie where someone asks, apropos of an old crime, “Who remembers what happened or did not happen? Who remembers the truth?”

Who remembers indeed? Amnesia may be the reason why tragi-comedies do not last in real life but tip one way or the other, into full-on farce or full-on tragedy: into Trump riding into the White House promising to fix an illusory border crisis with money from Mexico, or into refugee children suffering and in a few cases dying in the name of that same crisis.

As for the Virginia tragi-comedy, it tipped into farce on March 5, when the Republican Party of Virginia offered a $1000 reward for a  blackface picture of Herring.  The Virginia GOP knows that the viler the picture it unearths, the better its chances of seating a Republican politician in Northam’s chair. But that is not all the VGOP is seeking. It is seeking redemption, too.

After all, Northam won the governorship partly on the grounds that his Republican opponent was running a campaign of racial dog whistles. No less a speech maker than Barak Obama emphasized this when he came down to campaign for Northam in 2017. Further back, during Obama’s presidency, the VGOP had to chastise a county affiliate over racist images of Obama that the affiliate had on its Facebook page.

So, on March 5, offering the reward for Herring-in-blackface under a wanted-poster-style photograph of him, the Virginia Republicans was looking for a chance to seize the racial high ground, along with the levers of power that require the appearance of occupying that ground.

If this move pays off, the VGOP will have turned Northam’s scandal into “a morality car wash” for itself– into a cure for the ethically halt and lame, to borrow the metaphor of Martin Scorsese’s protagonist in Casino.

The Rinse Cycle

Every good American scandal is a morality carwash waiting to be switched on and filled with the most powerful water there is, the water of forgetting–the water that keeps America forever young and unsullied.

The perfect example of the workings of the waters of forgetting emerged toward the end of the tragi-comic phase of the blackface conversation when, after sending 62 journalists to scan American yearbooks for offensive images, USA Today editor Nicole Carroll had her attention called to a blackface page she herself included in a yearbook she edited 30 years ago.

The fact that Carroll had no memory of the offensive page made her, for me, an instant symbol of a country that is forever surprised by what it has chosen not to remember.

To eliminate the discomfort of contradictions between our principles and our actions, cognitive dissonance theory tells us, we sometimes edit our memories to make them consistent with innocent, unsullied version of ourselves.

Carroll, to her credit, apologized profusely and affirmed her commitment to diversity and perhaps put her cognitive dissonance to rest in that time-honored way.

But the VGOP is after something bigger than mere peace of mind. It, like the national party under President Trump’s leadership, is after the power to shape reality. So, before it comes up with that photograph of Mark Herring, and pushes the industrial forgetting into higher gear, it will be useful to trace the ties between the blackface and Klan images on Governor Northam’s medical school yearbook page to their intellectual origins in racist pseudoscience and antebellum entertainment.

The Morality Carwash in the Age of Slavery

Both the pseudoscience and the thirst for blackface entertainment were injected into American life during the period when slavery stood in need of defense and celebration.

One of those who led the conversation on race in those days was a New York actor named Thomas D. Rice. He popularized blackface in the 1830s by creating Jim Crow, a character whose behavior, according to one Louisiana editorialist, proved that emancipation of the slaves should not be considered for even a moment.  After Reconstruction,  “Jim Crow” unsurprisingly became the nickname for the system that enshrined Black inferiority in the southern law.

If Rice was the Mr. Hyde of American race relations, the Dr. Jekyll was Josiah Nott, an esteemed slave-owning physician who became a passionate racial anthropologist.  Together with an “American school” of naturalists, Nott helped spread racist ideas that continue to plague the national unconscious to this day.

Nott set forth “scientific” reasons why the northern states should not, on pain of warfare, step on slavery’s toes in 1850:

I have long been convinced, that the views I have been promulgating for the last ten years, contained the only appeal, which could be made with any possible chance of success, to our Northern brethren. They have been told again and again that the Constitution guaranteed to the South her slaves. … the same God who … permitted Slavery to exist by His Word, … stamped the Negro Race with permanent inferiority…. I now propose to pass over the intricacies of science … and lay before you a few results of investigation, which are very generally admitted amongst men of science …. [T]he naturalists every where are endorsing the opinions for which I am contending.

Much pseudoscience ensued—pseudoscience that has not entirely disappeared in 2019. Neither has the more nakedly self-interested elements of Nott’s argument:

these Negroes cannot be liberated without destroying the prosperity, happiness and political power of the Southern States; and yet we are scoffed at and insulted, as outside barbarians, for perpetuating this institution….

Strip away the podium-pounding trumpeting of Black inferiority and the defense of slavery, and one recognizes, in the claim to have been scoffed at and insulted, a speech in the key of Trump. One recognizes, more importantly, what the scholar George Lipsitz has called “the possessive investment in whiteness.”

Litpsitz uses the adjective “possessive to stress the relationship between whiteness and asset accumulation.”  He stresses research that shows that “nearly every social choice that white people make about where they live, what schools their children attend, what careers they pursue, and what policies they endorse is shaped by considerations involving race.” Nott, who served as director of the Confederate General Army Hospital during the Civil War, is a poster child for the possessive investment in whiteness and for the fact that that investment can influence “scientific” conclusions.

In a world that Nott and Thomas D. Rice helped to create, the spores floating out of the nineteenth century have scattered far and wide–into 1980s college yearbooks, into campus incidents like the one at Yale where police were summoned to investigate a sleeping Black student, and, most consequentially for the present discussion, into the arguments used by opponents of affirmative action and other policies that grew out of the Black freedom movement.

Lipsitz reports that The Possessive Investment in Whiteness grew out of his activism on behalf of affirmative action in the era when it was targeted for destruction in California. His side lost that battle, and affirmative action has had its back against one wall of another ever since, often because of the efforts of some of the same people who triumphed in California.

Blum, Zhao and the veil of forgetting

The current leader of the anti-affirmative action movement, Edward Blum, told me in 2017 that his strategic model is the NAACP Legal Defense fund, which won the case that desegregated American schools by invoking the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

In 2013, a case Blum organized led to the weakening, in the name of the 14thand 15thAmendment and racial equality, a provision of the Voting Rights Act that protected African Americans and other minorities against voter suppression laws.

Today, cases Blum has engineered against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill threaten to end affirmative action (from which people ranging from Sonya Sotomayor to female clerks hired by Brett Kavanaugh have benefited) if they succeed in the Supreme Court. The Harvard case, which alleges that Harvard discriminates against superior Asian students even as it gives a boost to Blacks and Hispanics through affirmative action, may have, as a side-effect, a raising of tensions between nonwhite competitors for American opportunity and a raising of the ghosts of Blum and Rice.

This danger is evident when one considers what the Harvard case has already wrought. In 2015, the Asian American Coalition for Education formed and filed, through the Justice Department, a civil rights complaint against Harvard that took its cues from Blum. Yukong Zhao, the leader of the group, seems to have emerged from central casting as an agent of industrial forgetting.

A graduate of China’s University of Science and Technology who earned a business degree from the University of South Carolina in 1996 and eventually became a Siemens executive, Zhao worked in the period between his degrees at the Chinese Academy of Sciences before settling in the United States in 1992. He is therefore an incarnation of the sort of person for whom H-1B visas, designed for highly-educated immigrants in specialized fields, were intended.

More importantly, he is an incarnation of the sort of person whose children are born into the upper middle-class, with access to the best American educational opportunities.

This makes his children unlike the offspring of most of the poor and working class foot soldiers of the Civil Rights movement, whose households tend to suffer from inherited poverty and unequal opportunity.  Zhao seems unaware or indifferent not only to this fact, but also to the fact that the Chinese community of which he is a proud part has benefited from the gains of the Black Civil Rights movement. (In the 1974 case of Lau v. Nichols, for instance, the Supremes found that failure to provide English language instruction for students of Chinese ancestry enrolled in San Francisco schools violated key provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

Zhao’s public statements suggest that he feels American history began when he arrived in 1992, 18 years after the Lau decision. Thus, in response to a Trump administration rollback of Obama-era guidelines on implementing affirmative action, Zhao told NPR, “I think it’s a new chapter for Asian-American children because, from today, discrimination—you know, the unlawful discrimination against our children will be significantly reduced.”

Zhao’s advocacy for kids who look like him is complemented by a call for more parents like himself: He has called (in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed) for an increase in H-1B visas while lamenting the much larger number of green cards issued to people he deems less productive. Zhao expands on the thinking behind all this in his 2013 book The Chinese Secrets for Success: Five InspiringConfucian Values, where he doles out such advice on topics such as “how to choose a desirable neighborhood that could help shape the future of your children.”

The irony here is that the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the various forms of workplace and educational affirmative action that grew out of it were designed to distribute the work and educational opportunities needed to secure that choice for people who were long denied it, and did not need to be told they needed it. Settling in America with a full compliment of educational capital, Zhao was free to be oblivious to the past and, indeed, to cheer its erasure, as he did when the Trump administration whited out the Obama guidance documents. Zhao was free, in other words, to dive into the waters of forgetting alongside Blum and other self-appointed guardians of civil rights washed clean of history.

As Lipsitz observes, the “power of whiteness depends not only on white hegemony over separate racialized groups but also on manipulating racial outsiders to fight against one another, to compete for white approval, and to seek the rewards and privileges of whiteness [which at its core always means non-Blackness] for themselves.”

Thanks to Nott, Rice and their fellow travelers, no overt racism needs to be involved in any of the current contests over who emerges cleanest from the morality carwash. Blum to all outward appearances is a man committed to an unwavering conception of justice. Zhao claims to have reached out to certain minority organizations, saying,  “We have a heart. We care about them.”

With the ghosts of Nott and Rice still among us, no one needs to make a Nott-like case for preserving the  “prosperity, happiness and political power” of whites or for beating others with the  “model minority” yardstick by which they measure themselves, as Zhao proudly does. All such bitter insistence is concealed by a vast forgetting, and by the ignorant grievances that forgetting makes possible.

More articles by:

Michael Collins has written for Harper’s and the Oxford American. He is the author of Understanding Etheridge Knight

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