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Blackface furor envelops politicians, even Gucci. But the list of offenders is long

A series of controversies involving politicians in Virginia and Florida, and now an $890 Gucci jumper, has brought the topic of blackface to the fore.

But it’s an issue with a very long history.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture traces blackface back to 19th century minstrel shows, when white entertainers donned black makeup to portray black slaves as lazy, ignorant and cowardly, CNN reported.

“They would do caricatures, do these distorted images of blacks,” said Wornie Reed, director of Virginia Tech’s Race and Social Policy Center, WSLS reported. “The impression that some people had was this was kind of typical of them, these kind of images they saw in entertainment, so they were always intended to be disparaging of blacks.”

One of the most popular traveling shows featured a character named Jim Crow, whose name came to symbolize laws enforcing segregation, according to CNN.

Performers such as Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland later appeared in blackface in the movies, CNN reported.

As knowledge of the offensive stereotypes perpetuated by blackface spread, it became less common, but it continues to spark controversy.

“It’s never been OK. Never,” Reed said, WSLS reported. “Blackface always has been, and still is, an expression of white supremacy.”

Ted Danson, Julianne Hough and Kylie Jenner, among other celebrities, have been criticized for costumes and photos showing them in blackface, The Wrap reported. Even black entertainers such as Tyra Banks and Beyonce have been taken to task for appearing in photos with their skin darkened.

As with the current controversies, a number of U.S. politicians have run into trouble when photos, sometimes old, of them in blackface became public. Most recently, Mike Ertel resigned as Florida’s secretary of state in January after a 2005 photo of him in blackface surfaced, The Miami Herald reported.

And high schools and colleges across the nation have dealt with the issue when photos and videos of students in blackface surface.

Here’s a rundown of the latest controversies.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam

Leaders from both sides of the aisle have called for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to resign after he admitted using shoe polish to paint his face and look like Michael Jackson in a dance contest, The Washington Post reported.

Northam confirmed he painted his face black after denying that he wore blackface in a medical school yearbook photo, USA Today reported. The photo shows two people, one in blackface and another in a KKK robe, and was taken in 1984. His name is typed above the photo, according to USA Today.

“My belief that I did not wear that costume or attend that party stems in part from my clear memory of other mistakes that I made in the same period of my life,” Northam said, according to USA Today. “That same year, I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume.”

The Democratic Party of Virginia has called for Northam to resign, CNN reported.

“We stand with Democrats across Virginia and the country calling him to immediately resign. He no longer has our confidence or our support,” Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Susan Swecker said in the statement, according to CNN.

Former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and senators from across the nation have also called for his resignation, CNN reported.

“It’s completely unacceptable,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said after calling for Northam to resign, according to the Washington Post. “I’m sure he’s lost the confidence of the people of Virginia.”

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring

Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring, third in line for governor, admitted in a statement posted to Twitter that he, too, has worn blackface.

“In 1980, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college, some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time … and perform a song, ” he wrote in the statement. “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it. But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes — and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others — we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”

Herring, 57, posted the statement “after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol,” the AP reported.

This came four days after he called on Northam to resign because “it is no longer possible” for the him to lead after the blackface yearbook photo controversy, CNBC reported.

“Although the shame of that moment has haunted me for decades, and though my disclosure of it now pains me immensely, what I am feeling in no way compares to the betrayal, the shock, and the deep pain that Virginians of color may be feeling,” Herring wrote in his statement.

Following his statement, Herring resigned as co-chairman of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, FOX News reported.

Florida State Rep. Anthony Sabatini

The Florida Democratic Party is calling on State Rep. Anthony Sabatini to resign following the revelation that he dressed in blackface when he was in high school in 2005.

The photo in question was anonymously sent to media organizations last year during Sabatini’s run for the State House, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The photo was decried as racist, but Sabatini told the newspaper Tuesday that he and a friend were dressing as each other as a “prank.”

Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Republican, told WESH he will not ask for Sabatini’s resignation, because “All of us are not the people we were at 16. We grow, we learn, and we realize the world is much bigger than the walls of our high school. The people of Representative Sabatini’s district have made their choice, with full knowledge of the photograph, and that choice will be respected.”

Gucci

Gucci apologized on social media Wednesday night after complaints flooded the into Italian fashion house over one of its apparel items called a “wool balaclava jumper.”

Many on social media said the black, turtleneck sweater with exaggerated bright red lips at the top of the neckline made the wearer appear like they were wearing blackface.

In its apology on Twitter, Gucci said it had removed the item from all stores and the company’s online store.

Related stories from Miami Herald

Don Sweeney has been a newspaper reporter and editor in California for more than 25 years. He has been a real-time reporter based at The Sacramento Bee since 2016.
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