By Owen FitzGerald and Rosemarie O’Connor
Politicians, journalists, educators, voters — whose responsibility is it to combat racism, and where do they start?
Hundreds gathered in the Virginia Commonwealth University Commons Theater Monday evening to tackle that question. The discussion “Blackface, the Scandal and the Media: A Discussion about Racism in Virginia,” featured VCU journalism professors and Richmond-area journalists.
“You must do this study of the dead to later study the living,” said Clarence Thomas, an associate professor of journalism at VCU. Thomas and the panelists emphasized the importance of knowing the history behind blackface in the media.
Thomas, who moderated the discussion, was joined on the panel by:
- Jeff South – associate professor of journalism, VCU
- Mechelle Hankerson – reporter, the Virginia Mercury
- Samantha Willis – freelance journalist and editor
- Michael Paul Williams – columnist, Richmond Times-Dispatch
The panel opened with this video from the Huffington Post, “The History of Blackface in America.” The video shows the use of blackface in popular movies, television shows and cartoons even in recent years.
This discussion came after two top Democratic officials admitted to wearing blackface.
Gov. Ralph Northam has been under fire since Feb. 1, when a news organization published a photo from his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical College yearbook. The picture showed two men — one in blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. He initially admitted he was in the photo and apologized.
The next day he denied he was in the photo, but said he had worn shoe polish to darken his face while dressing as Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984. State and national leaders on both sides of the aisle called on Northam to resign.
Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface at a party in 1980. Herring said he dressed as rapper Kurtis Blow, wearing a wig and brown makeup. He apologized for this “one-time occurrence” and said it was a “minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.” Northam and Herring are still in office despite calls for resignations, though far fewer have called for Herring’s resignation.
The Commonwealth Times, VCU’s student-run newspaper, earlier this month published racist photos from Richmond Public Institute and the Medical College of Virginia yearbooks, some pictures as recent as 1989.
Photos showed students wearing blackface, enacting a “slave sale” and displaying violence toward Asian Americans. RPI and the Medical College of Virginia merged to form VCU in 1968.
These events opened old wounds, spotlighting the history of racism and Jim Crow in Virginia.
“Blackface is not and never was intended to be flattering, innocent or complimentary,” Thomas said.
Every panelist expressed concern over the lack of attention paid to the person in KKK robes in Northam’s yearbook picture.
“There aren’t black voices standing up and saying, ‘yes the blackface is bad, but there’s also a man in a KKK robe,’” Hankerson said.
“There aren’t enough minority voices in journalism to guide the needed coverage,” she added, a thought echoed by other panelists.
“There is a certain amount of trauma that comes with viewing these images over and over,” Willis said. “There needs to be sensitivity when covering these stories.”
“Clearly it’s been a failure,” South said, adding that journalists didn’t properly vet Northam while he was running for office.
“The media needs to be more courageous about calling racist behavior racist,” Hankerson said.
South referenced a Halloween costume Northam wore last year depicting James Barbour, a slave owner who served as Virginia’s governor from 1812 to 1814 and said that there was no reaction to it until after the blackface scandal.
Panelists agreed and also pointed to Northam’s role in the recent State Air Pollution Control Board vote to allow Dominion Energy to build a compressor station in Buckingham County for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The decision will impact Union Hill, a predominantly black neighborhood.
Hankerson added that political change “can’t just come from black lawmakers,” saying it wasn’t their sole responsibility.
A key question of the night was posed by Williams — the “why” that perpetuates racism.
“Because it is a benefit to people,” he asked, “how do you get someone to give up an advantage?”
The panel unanimously agreed that education is imperative to combat racism in America. How and when children are educated about racism should be a primary focus if the goal is to enact widespread institutional change.
“The body that we pay attention to is called the stream of information in society. We must pay close attention to the heart,” Thomas said, ”because the heart of the stream of information is truth.
“Protect it from the cancers that might invade it.”