Some of these folks are decent people who did something racist and insensitive, thinking it was funny and harmless. Some are racists who did something racist and insensitive, thinking only it was funny.
And some are simply clueless. They don’t think much at all.
If you’re a white person who has — for whatever dumbass reason — smeared shoe polish on your face and gone to a party pretending to be black, this is a good moment for reflection: Why on Earth did I do that? And why did I let some fool take my picture? Was I stoned? Was I drunk? Did I lose a bet?
The current blackface scandal is providing a spectrum of bad examples from which obvious lessons may be drawn.
Naturally, it blew up first in Florida. On Jan. 24, the Republican secretary of state, Michael Ertel, hastily resigned after the Tallahassee Democrat obtained photos of him with his face painted black. Ertel also was wearing earrings, red lipstick, a New Orleans Saints bandanna and a T-shirt bearing the words “Katrina Victim.”
His pose was doubly abhorrent because it mocked not only blacks, but everyone whose lives were upended by that hurricane. The pictures were taken at a Halloween party in 2005, only two months after Katrina killed 1,836 people, most of them in Louisiana — and most of them African Americans.
At the time of the photo, Ertel wasn’t some witless kid at a frat-house rush. He was the supervisor of elections in Seminole County.
One week after his story erupted, it was the Democrats’ turn in Virginia. A conservative website got a photo from Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical-school yearbook purportedly showing him wearing blackface, standing beside another young man in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
At first Northam apologized for appearing in the offensive picture. Then, in a weird about-face, the next day he declared that he wasn’t in the photo after all.
However, he admitted that he’d once darkened his skin and dressed up like Michael Jackson to perform the singer’s famous moonwalk. Northam expressed regret, though it hasn’t muted the demands from civil rights groups and state leaders of both parties for his resignation. As of this writing, the governor has refused to quit.
Even if one gave him the benefit of the doubt — that he did something wrong as a young man, and learned from it — troubling questions linger. Northam’s confusion about the blackface photo, for instance.
As a white guy whose memory isn’t always flawless, I’m still pretty sure I’d remember if a racist picture had appeared on my personal yearbook page, and I would absolutely remember if I was one of the two boneheads in that picture.
Nobody needs 24 hours to positively identify their own face, unless they’ve posed for so many such pictures that they’ve lost track.
Remember that this took place in 1984, 20 whole years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, and 16 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Was there not one editor of the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook who was bothered by the image of future doctors in blackface or a Klan hood?
Northam’s exposure triggered more political chaos in Virginia. Last week a woman came forward with a sexual assault accusation against Justin Fairfax, the African-American lieutenant governor who is next in line for Northam’s job.
Fairfax has denied any wrongdoing, saying the encounter was consensual.
Now the third person in the order of succession, Attorney General Mark Herring, admits that he, too, once wore blackface. He says he went to a college party 38 years ago dressed as Kurtis Blow, a rapper whose songs he enjoyed.
Herring has apologized profusely, just as Northam apologized for his King of Pop moment, and Michael Ertel apologized for his Katrina-victim costume.
It doesn’t matter why or how the Ertel photos were leaked. The images aren’t fake. His antics are much more odious because he was 35 at the time, not 19, and he was ridiculing minority victims of a deadly natural disaster.
But times change, and sometimes people do, too. All of us have done dumb, cruel things that could be reappraised in a broader context and, if we’re lucky, forgiven.
For all those with memories of blackface high jinks hidden away, the scissors are your friend. So is the Delete button.
While Floridians were breathlessly told that a boardwalk was in grave danger of being damaged by high surf, Great Abaco and Grand Bahama were being pulverized by almost two days of 180-plus mph winds and a 20-foot sea surge