Before multiculturalism, blackface rampant in US pop culture
By RUSSELL CONTRERAS
Monday, February 11
At the time Virginia’s future political leaders put on blackface in college for fun, Dan Aykroyd wore it too — in the hit 1983 comedy “Trading Places.”
Sports announcers of that time often described Boston Celtics player Larry Bird, who is white, as “smart” while describing his black NBA opponents as athletically gifted.
Such racial insensitivities ran rampant in popular culture during the 1980s, the era in which Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and the state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, have admitted to wearing blackface as they mimicked pop singer Michael Jackson and rapper Kurtis Blow, respectively.
Meanwhile, Chicago elected its first black mayor, Michael Jackson made music history with his “Thriller” album, U.S. college students protested against South Africa’s racist system of apartheid and the stereotype-smashing sitcom “The Cosby Show” debuted on network television.
It would be another 10 years before the rise of multiculturalism began to change America’s racial sensibilities, in part because intellectuals and journalists of color were better positioned to successfully challenge racist images, and Hollywood began to listen.
“We are in a stronger position to educate the American public about symbols and cultural practices that are harmful today than we were in the 1980s,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University.
During the ’80s, college faculties and student bodies were less diverse, Gates said. Some scholars who entered college during the 1960s had yet to take on roles in which mainstream culture would heed their cultural critiques, he said.
At the time Northam and Herring put on black makeup, Hollywood and popular culture still sent messages that racial stereotypes and racist imagery were comical and harmless, despite pleas from civil rights groups and black newspapers.
Herring was a 19-year-old University of Virginia student when he wore brown makeup and a wig to look like rapper Kurtis Blow at a 1980 party. Three years before that, white actor Gene Wilder darkened his face with shoe polish in the movie “Silver Streak” co-starring Richard Pryor. He used a stereotypical walk to impersonate a black person living in an urban neighborhood.
On television, viewers could see a Tom and Jerry cartoon featuring the character Mammy Two Shoes, an obese black maid who spoke in a stereotypical voice. The 1940s cartoon series was shown across several markets throughout the 1980s. Television stations ignored complaints from civil rights groups.
Elsewhere, Miami erupted into riots following the acquittal of white police officers who killed black salesman and retired Marine Arthur McDuffie in what many called a case of police brutality. President Jimmy Carter visited and pressed for an end to the violence, but a protester threw a bottle at his limousine as he left.
When Northam wore blackface to imitate Michael Jackson and copy his moonwalking skills at a 1984 San Antonio dance contest, television stations still aired Looney Tunes episodes with racially insensitive images using Bugs Bunny and other characters despite some controversial episodes being taken off the air in 1968.
African-Americans, however, had reason to be hopeful amid electoral gains. A year before, in 1983, Chicago became the latest city to elect a black mayor, Harold Washington, after activists registered 100,000 new black voters. That election, Jesse Jackson later said, paved the way for him to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 1984.
“It was out of that context that my own candidacy emerged,” Jackson said in the 1990 “Eyes on the Prize” documentary. Jackson lost the nomination to former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Two years after Northam’s moonwalk performance, the comedy “Soul Man” hit theaters. In the movie, Mark Watson, played by white actor C. Thomas Howell, takes tanning pills in a larger dose to appear African-American so he can obtain a scholarship meant for black students at Harvard Law School. The movie drew a strong reaction from the NAACP and protesters to movie theaters.
Still, “Soul Man” took in around $28 million domestically, equivalent to around $63.5 million today.
Despite those images, new and popular black cultural figures also emerged, including Eddie Murphy, Oprah Winfrey and a young Michael Jordan. Black Entertainment Television, or BET, was founded in 1980 by businessman Robert L. Johnson, giving the country access to black entertainment using 1970s sitcoms and music.
But as Nelson George argued in his book “Post-Soul Nation: The Explosive, Contradictory, Triumphant and Tragic 1980s as Experienced by African Americans,” BET failed to counter negative images by relying on free music videos and investing little money in original programming. “Through this conservative strategy, BET prospered while offering little new to a community starved for images of itself,” George wrote.
In addition, the new black cultural figures rarely engaged in politics or spoke out against racial injustice.
Sometimes, stereotypes and comments did result in consequences. For example, CBS fired sports commentator Jimmy Snyder, known as Jimmy the Greek, in 1988 after he suggested in a television interview that black athletes were better because of slavery. The Los Angeles Dodgers fired general manager Al Campanis in 1987 for saying on ABC’s “Nightline” that blacks “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager” and they were poor swimmers.
In 1987, black demonstrators marched in all-white Forsyth County, Georgia, to protest the racism that kept blacks out for 75 years. They were promptly attacked by white nationalists hurling rocks and waving Confederate flags. The shocking images sparked national outrage and led Oprah Winfrey to air an episode of her then-5-month-old syndicated talk show from the county.
“What are you afraid that black people are going to do?” Winfrey asked the audience.
“I’m afraid of them coming to Forsyth County,” one white man told her.
Today, Gates said, people can no longer claim ignorance. While it should have been understood that blackface was offensive during the 1980s, one might have had to go to the library to learn exactly why, he said.
“We also have more records digitized,” Gates said. “The access to archives is larger, and we have more diversity in the media so we can say these images are painful … and why we shouldn’t use them.”
Associated Press Writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s race and ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras.
How to say ‘I’m sorry,’ whether you’ve appeared in a racist photo, harassed women or just plain screwed up
February 8, 2019
Author: Lisa Leopold, Associate Professor of English Language Studies, The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Middlebury
Disclosure statement: Lisa Leopold does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Middlebury College provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
These two words may seem simple, but the ability to express them when you’re in the wrong is anything but – particularly for those in the public eye.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, to name a recent example, was forced to apologize after his 1984 medical school yearbook page resurfaced showing two unnamed men, one with blackface and another wearing the Ku Klux Klan’s white hood and robe. That he seriously botched his effort to apologize is arguably one of the reasons many people are still calling on him to resign.
As a language scholar, I wanted to get to the bottom of just what makes an apology effective by analyzing dozens of mea culpas. While some offered authentic apologies, many more seemed defensive, insincere or forced.
With the help of insights from linguists, psychologists and business ethicists who study apologies, I found that there are three main elements each needs to have to be effective.
Not all apologies are equal
Much is at stake with a public apology.
When done right, it can rebuild trust and restore a damaged reputation. However, a poorly crafted apology can lead to widespread criticism and further damage credibility. Research shows that the way a company crafts an apology can even affect its future financial performance and that leaders who apologize tend to be viewed more favorably than those who don’t.
In “When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Making Things Right with Those You Love,” Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas cite a survey of what people preferred most in an apology. It found that almost four-fifths wanted their would-be penitent to either express regret or accept responsibility, as opposed to make restitution, repent or seek forgiveness.
In 2011, David Boyd, now dean emeritus at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, identified seven strategies that make public apologies effective. I believe three of them – revelation, responsibility and recognition – are the most significant because they overlap with those identified by prominent scholars in other fields, including linguists Andrew Cohen and Elite Olshtain and psychologist Robert Gordon.
That is, an admission for the lapse using the words “I am sorry” or “I apologize,” ownership for the offense and empathy for those who have been hurt all contribute to an effective apology. But it’s not enough for an apology just to contain these three ingredients. It’s also about the exact wording used.
In my analysis of infamous public apologies that celebrities, CEOs and political figures have delivered over the past two years, I was looking for how they fared according to Boyd’s standards of revelation, responsibility and recognition. I also closely examined the language of each apology, applying many insights from linguist Edwin Battistella’s book “Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.”
1. ‘I am sorry’
This may seem obvious but sadly isn’t: Any respectable apology must include an actual apology with a specific acknowledgment of what was done. Surprisingly, some people attempting to own up to something never get around to actually apologizing.
Comedian Louis C.K., for example, never actually used words like “apologize” or “sorry” after being accused of sexual misconduct by several women. He called the stories “true” and said he was “remorseful” but dodged the actual apology.
Others try to apologize in a general way to avoid being pinned down to a specific transgression, weakening the impact. Or they may admit to a lesser offense. A case in point is Apple’s non-apology apology in December 2017 over the performance of iPhone batteries.
“We’ve been hearing feedback from our customers about the way we handle performance for iPhones with older batteries and how we have communicated that process,” the company said. “We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize.”
Was Apple apologizing for the poor-performing batteries, its communication process or the feelings of its customers? Distancing the actual apology from the transgressions is a common tactic in corporate apologies, used in recent years both by Airbnb and Uber as well.
2. ‘I did it’
Any well-crafted apology must claim responsibility for the transgression – not attribute one’s actions to happenstance or external factors.
Amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg used the passive voice to distance himself from any wrongdoing: “I’m really sorry that this happened,” he said in an interview to CNN.
That wasn’t the first time he used the passive voice this way. In an earlier apology issued in 2017 after Facebook was criticized for Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, he said, “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better.”
The choice of the passive suggests that he has little control over the ways his work was used by others.
Another example is Charlie Rose, a television journalist fired by CBS following accusations of sexual misconduct. He issued an apology in the following manner: “I have learned a great deal as a result of these events, and I hope others will too. All of us, including me, are coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past, and have come to a profound new respect for women and their lives.”
By including himself as one of several people and embedding his actions as part of a broader group’s actions, he minimized responsibility for his own transgressions.
Others simply try to deflect attention from the transgression as part of an apology, as actor Kevin Spacey did when he announced his sexual orientation or like disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s vow to direct his anger to the National Rifle Association.
In contrast, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson in April 2018 gave an example of an apology that takes real ownership after two African-American men were arrested while waiting for a friend at one of his stores: “These two gentlemen did not deserve what happened, and we are accountable. I am accountable.”
3. ‘I feel your pain’
Finally, apologies should meet the standard of recognition: expressing empathy to those who have been hurt.
Many so-called apologies fail to acknowledge victims’ feelings, focusing instead on justifications or excuses. For example, actor Henry Cavill apologized for his controversial statements about the #MeToo movement by saying he’s sorry for “any confusion and misunderstanding that” his comments created. In doing so, he insinuated that there was no transgressor or victim, as more than one party is typically to blame for a misunderstanding.
Expressions of empathy are further weakened anytime a modal such as “may” is used to cast doubt on whether the transgression had a negative impact on others. In an apology issued by the record producer Russell Simmons for sexual misconduct, his use of “may” ultimately suggests that women may or may not have been offended by his actions: “For any women from my past who I may have offended, I sincerely apologize. I am still evolving.”
Furthermore, those last four words show that he’s focusing on his own growth, rather than the pain of his victims.
Failing to apologize
Returning to Northam, his apology failed to live up to all three strategies.
After initially accepting that one of the men was him, he quickly reversed himself, expressing contrition while distancing himself from the racist photo. And then his apology included the vague wording “for the decision I made to appear as I did,” which hardly constitutes a worthy admission of wrongdoing.
Referring to his actions as “this” rather than “my” minimizes ownership. And rather than accepting responsibility, he pleads with the public not to let his past behavior shape how they see him.
So if you’re finding it difficult to parse the multitude of public apologies in the mainstream media, look closely for these three ingredients, along with the language each uses.
Black Virginia voters feel betrayed, left in no-win scenario
By ERRIN HAINES WHACK
Monday, February 11
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Eva Siakam’s choice to campaign for Ralph Northam in 2017 was a simple one: He was a Democrat and endorsed by Barack Obama, America’s first black president.
But sitting in a stylist’s chair at Supreme Hair Styling Boutique in Richmond on Friday, she shook her head in disgust when asked about revelations that Northam wore blackface 35 years ago.
“I really believed in him,” said Siakam, a 28-year-old student. “To find out that he dressed up in blackface is disappointing. He’s shown his disdain for black people.”
Black voters who factored prominently in the 2017 election that helped Northam become Virginia governor are feeling betrayed over the scandals that have engulfed the state over the past week, leaving them with a less-than-ideal set of choices at the top of the Democratic Party: a governor and attorney general who wore blackface and a lieutenant governor who stands accused by two women of sexual assault. The next person in line for governor is a conservative Republican.
Many are struggling to come to grips with a list of nagging questions: Do they forgive the Democrats, keep Republicans out of power and demand the governor get serious about racism? Should Northam step down and hand the office to African-American Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who faces sexual assault allegations? Or should all three of them walk away and let principle prevail, even if the other party takes charge?
The dilemma was being weighed in black barber shops, salons, restaurants and living rooms and in activist and political circles across the state in the midst of a still-unfolding reckoning around race and scandal in the Old Dominion.
“We don’t even know where to take the conversation from here,” community organizer Chelsea Wise said at a meeting of Democrats in Richmond on Thursday. “Do we want to address all of them, or are we just sticking with Ralph right now? The fact that it’s all of our top leadership shows that we need to take a hard look at the Virginia Democratic Party as well.”
The governor has been facing calls to resign ever since a photo emerged from his medical school yearbook page in 1984 that showed someone in blackface next to a person wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. He initially said he was in the photo, then denied that but said he did wear blackface when he impersonated Michael Jackson around the same time. Days later, Fairfax was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2004, and Attorney General Mark Herring came forward to admit that he, too, wore blackface in the 1980s.
As of Friday night, Northam informed his Cabinet that he was determined to stay in office, Herring remained in a wait-and-see posture, and Fairfax had denied a second accusation of sexual assault, this one from a classmate at Duke University who said he raped her in 2000. Northam is vowing to start an honest conversation on race to begin to heal Virginia’s lingering racial legacy.
Siakam said she thinks Northam should resign, but said the conversation must now turn to the larger impacts of racism on communities of color.
“There’s nothing you can do for us to forget, but we should focus more now on structural racism,” she said.
African-Americans, who make up 20 percent of Virginia voters, overwhelmingly supported the commonwealth’s top three Democrats in 2017, in large part as a repudiation of what they saw as the racist rhetoric and policies prevalent in the 2016 presidential campaign and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville just months before the election. Both Northam and Herring campaigned heavily in black areas, and were given entree into many communities by local officials, faith leaders, business owners and regular citizens.
Wise said she had reservations about Northam’s commitment to black communities during the election, but supported him anyway and was prepared to hold him accountable amid a racially divided national climate.
“We knew Trump had just gotten elected and we needed a Democratic governor in Virginia, especially because of the importance of the state in national elections,” Wise, 34, explained. “I almost felt like I couldn’t question him because of the urgency add the importance of what we just had on the national level.”
Wise said she felt betrayed by Northam’s revelations, particularly because he remained silent about his own past after the events of Charlottesville.
“How in the world did you not come out and do your own truth-telling?” she said. “That makes me recognize that you don’t have the insight and emotional capacity to take on what we need in Virginia at this time.”
Shemicia Bowen campaigned for Democrats up and down the ticket. The 44-year-old Richmond resident said she gasped when she learned the governor had worn blackface 35 years ago. She finds Herring’s revelations were even more alarming because he’s the state’s top lawyer and has to deal with daily decisions affecting black people in the criminal justice system.
Still, Bowen struggles with the way forward for black Virginians. She doesn’t think anyone will step down, and as a loyal Democrat, she’s not sure they should turn over the state to Republicans.
“We can’t just throw the whole ticket away at this point,” said Bowen. “But we have to understand that blackface is a blatant form of disrespect. If an elected official isn’t aware of that, what else are they not aware of? What else do you feel like is not a big deal? How are you able to effectively be a voice for every person?”
Norfolk native Joe Dillard said Northam should resign, and that the allegations against Fairfax should be investigated before discussing what consequences he should face. But the idea of a Republican governor should all three step aside was not unpalatable if it’s the right decision, he said.
“Do I think I should support Democrats to the point where I allow certain things that my great-grandparents would slap me in the face for letting slide? No, I won’t,” Dillard said. “I am not a Democrat before I’m an African-American man. For me, it’s always people over party.”
Dillard and Bowen, both members of a group of young blacks active in Virginia politics, said Northam should immediately allocate at least $20 million to the state’s historically black colleges and universities, which have been underfunded. Dillard also suggested an African-American liaison in the governor’s office, to establish a pipeline for young blacks to rise to meaningful positions in government. Wise is already looking ahead to future cycles, where she feels more black women in leadership would help restore her confidence in the party.
Jim Scurlock, a longtime elections supervisor in Richmond who went to segregated high schools in Roanoke before experiencing the sting of Jim Crow as a young soldier in the Army in 1960, was withholding judgment on Fairfax. And he said given the national political climate and the country’s racist legacy, everyone deserves a second chance.
“Probably many, many more in the General Assembly wore blackface,” Scurlock, 82, said. “Virginia is still a racist state. It hasn’t changed much. And look at the president and all he has done. I haven’t forgiven the president, but he’s still in office, so why should they resign?”
Plan to impeach Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax slows down
By ALAN SUDERMAN and BEN FINLEY
Monday, February 11
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — An effort to launch the impeachment of Virginia’s top black elected official was set aside on Monday and Gov. Ralph Northam declared a new “race and equity” agenda for the rest of his tenure, saying he really believes “that things happen for a reason.”
Revelations of racist behavior and allegations of sexual assault that happened years ago have engulfed Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring. It increasingly appears that all three will survive the immediate firestorm, but with deep wounds that threaten their political clout.
Northam and Herring are still struggling to recover after acknowledging that they each once wore blackface as young men in the 1980s. When it appeared Fairfax might take over as governor, two women came forward accusing him of sexual assault in the 2000s. Fairfax vehemently denied it, calling on the FBI to investigate.
Northam, for his part, said in an interview broadcast Monday on “CBS This Morning” that he now understands that he “was born into white privilege,” which is why he will dedicate his remaining tenure to policies aimed at helping his black constituents.
“I really believe that things happen for a reason,” Northam said. “I will focus on race and equity. That’s something that, for the next three years, is going to be my commitment to Virginia. And I really think we can make impactful changes.”
All three men are facing a reckoning over events that happened long before they took office, but it’s a full-blown crisis for the Democratic Party, which counts on the support of black voters and has taken an almost zero-tolerance approach to sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era.
A housecleaning could be costly: The GOP already controls Virginia’s legislature, and if all three resign, Republican state House Speaker Kirk Cox would become Virginia’s governor. Democrats are still hoping to flip the General Assembly in legislative elections this year.
Democratic Del. Patrick Hope tweeted early Monday that he got “an enormous amount of sincere and thoughtful feedback” from colleagues after circulating a draft of his impeachment bill, and that he sees that “additional conversations … need to take place before anything is filed.”
Lawmakers still might launch some sort of investigation of Fairfax, even if impeachment isn’t immediately in the cards. Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson have accused him of sexual assault and offered to testify.
The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they are victims of sexual assault, but both women have come forward voluntarily.
Watson alleges Fairfax raped her while they were students at Duke University in 2000. Tyson, a California college professor, accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004.
Fairfax denies ever sexually assaulting anyone.
“Frankly, we really want any entity with comprehensive investigative power to thoroughly look into these accusations,” Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke said. “There needs to be verification of basic facts about these allegations. It feels like something bigger is going on here.”
Meanwhile, Fairfax has made it clear he won’t resign.
“Before Donald Trump, I would say with this kind of stuff, it’s impossible for a person to just hang on, put their head down and ignore it,” said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University. “Post-Donald Trump, I think what elected officials are willing to do has changed in some ways. So can he hang on? Certainly he can hang on.”
If Fairfax were to leave, it’s unclear who could replace him. Northam may try to appoint a Democrat, while Republicans could mount a legal challenge with the goal of getting Senate Pro Tem Steve Newman to serve as both a voting senator and temporary lieutenant governor.
Herring would be next in line if both Northam and Fairfax were to leave office, and he initially made a forceful call for Northam to step down, but then he too acknowledged wearing blackface at a party in 1980, opening himself to simultaneous charges of racism, opportunism and hypocrisy.
In this latest interview, Northam provided a more complete explanation of his statements that set off this whole crisis, when he reacted to the discovery of a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook yearbook page showing one man wearing blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo; then he denied it, while saying he did wear blackface to a dance party that same year.
Northam told “CBS This Morning” he mistakenly took responsibility for the picture because had never seen the image before.
“When you’re in a state of shock like I was, we don’t always think as clearly as we should,” said Northam, who worked for years as a pediatric neurologist before entering politics.
But “when I stepped back and looked at it, I just said I know it’s not me in the Klan outfit. And I started looking in the picture of the individual with blackface. I said that’s not me either,” he said.
Northam told CBS it’s up to his fellow leaders to decide whether they want to remain on the job. He said he supports Fairfax’s call for an investigation, and as for Herring, “just like me, he has grown.”
Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia. Contributing to this report were Associated Press reporters Steve Helber in Chilhowie, Virginia; David McFadden in Baltimore; and Julie Pace and Michael Biesecker in Washington.