Blackface and White Nationalism

download
Northam’s college yearbook page (1984).  Northam claims he’s not the pictured in the blackface/KKK photo, but that he did wear blackface on another occasion to emulate Michael Jackson

“It’s complicated” is one description of race relations in America.  The current controversy in Virginia involving Governor Ralph Northam is an example of this.  As a college student, Northam claims he donned blackface as an homage to Michael Jackson, even as Jackson, tragically, was beginning to alter his own physical appearance via painful surgical procedures, apparently to appear more “white.”

Why do white people don blackface?  When they do, is it always racist?  Take the case of Prince Harry, who as a young man wore a Nazi Swastika to a costume party.  Most people assumed he was simply trying to shock, and that he’d made a poor choice, not that he was a neo-Nazi bent on reviving the Third Reich.  In Northam’s yearbook page from 35 years ago, were the young men donning blackface and wearing KKK hoods simply (and dumbly) trying to shock?  Were they engaged in transgressive behavior to elicit groans as well as laughs?  Or were they white supremacists and racists, actualizing white privilege, privilege that is always present, even when not acknowledged, in American culture and society?

When you combine images of whites in blackface with other whites in KKK hoods, the message is clear.  Racial oppression, a murderous record, is being referenced, in a way that trivializes past horrors.  Governor Northam claims he didn’t appear in the blackface/KKK photo shown on his yearbook page, but he also apparently never complained about it nor did he express regret after the fact.

What are we to make of all this?  My friend M. Davout, who teaches political science in the American South, asks us to think about the wider historical context of blackface performers in the United States, including its role in the assimilation of immigrant groups into a racialized American identity. W.J. Astore

Blackface and White Nationalism

What a Virginia Governor’s Problem Reveals about American Identity

M. Davout

The controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook photo displaying a person in blackface alongside a person in a KKK hood and a college yearbook entry referring to him as “coonman” has been mostly reduced to the question whether decades-old racist expressions disqualify him from continuing to occupy his current office.  To the extent the issue remains framed in this narrow way, an opportunity is missed to understand the nature and durability of racist expression in U.S. society.  By uncritically accepting the conventional association of blackface with racist animus, we overlook how racist hostility is twinned with racial attraction in the very definition of what it means to be an American.

In his thought-provoking work, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, the late Berkeley political theorist Michael Rogin raised a central question: What accounts for the long and pervasive career of blackface in American entertainment?  Consider the minstrel shows of the Jacksonian era, the Tin Pan Alley songs and vaudeville skits of the late 19th century, followed by the silent film era that featured DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) through the introduction of synchronized sound in Hollywood movies starting with The Jazz Singer (1927).

Rogin’s key to answering that question is his recognition of the important role of outsider groups such as the Irish Catholics of the mid-19th century and immigrant Jews of the late-19th and early-20th centuries as purveyors and consumers of blackface entertainment.

Singling out the vaudeville performer Al Jolson’s role as Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer as the immigrant son (“Jackie Rabinowitz”) who transcends his Jewish roots to become an American success story via blackface performance (his blacked-up rendition of “My Mammy!” to an audience, including his adoring mother, concludes the film), Rogin suggests how blackface entertainment performed the American dream of upward mobility by making immigrant ambition acceptable to nativists.

Jolson_black
Al Jolson in blackface for “The Jazz Singer”

It was not unusual for past blackface entertainers to see their performances as manifesting a sympathetic bond with African-Americans—after all, Jewish immigrants from Russia knew what it meant to be treated as pariahs and were arguably as much a target of the newly resurgent 1920s KKK as were African-Americans.  In this regard, Northam’s admission, in one of his earliest public responses to the controversy, that he dressed up in blackface as Michael Jackson for a medical school dancing contest may have been an effort, however ineffective, to evoke cross-racial sympathy and distance himself from blackface images more transparently driven by racist aversion as was arguably the case in the medical school yearbook photo (which Northam now claims is not of himself).

Of course, both then and now, however much the performer sympathizes with the group he is masquerading as, the effect of blackface performance is to help win acceptance for the performer (and his group) at the cost of keeping African-Americans at the bottom, unassimilable.

Irish and Jewish blackface performers signaled the transformation of despised and racialized European immigrant groups into true (i.e., white) Americans. In arguing that Al Jolson’s character “washes himself white by painting himself black,” Rogin points to how “whiteness” was (and, to an extent, remains) a powerful component of what it means to be an American.

Maybe “white nationalism” is not a fringe idea, after all, but a central part of what it means to be American and explains a significant part of Donald Trump’s appeal to his white working-class base: he refuses to hide or repress or ignore the racialized origins of American identity.

M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the American South.

The Races of Man

W.J. Astore

In the 19th century, many people believed in polygenism, and others used the concept of “the races of man,” where by “race” they often meant species.  At home, I have a framed copy of the races of man taken from an encyclopedia published in the 1890s.  Here’s a photo of it:

IMG_1827

Of course, there’s always an assumed hierarchy to the races of man concept.  White Europeans are at the top, since it’s they who defined and ordered the hierarchy.  Surprise!

In my photo, White Europeans take pride of place in the center, with some swarthy Italians at the top right (I’m half-Italian).  Meanwhile, Polynesian (pink flowers in hair) and Indian (from South America) women are shown with bare breasts.  “Primitives” are primitive precisely because they’re “immodest” in dress, a convention that allowed publishers to show nudity in illustrations and photos without being accused of pornography.  You might call this the “National Geographic” dispensation for nudity.

My college students were often amazed when I told them that science shows that all of us — all humans — came out of Africa.  Far too many people today still think of race as both definitive and as a rung on a ladder, and naturally they always place their own “race” on the top rung.

Even more disturbing is the resurgence of racialized (and often racist) thinking in the United States.  The idea of the races of man and the “scientific” ordering of the same was debunked a century ago, yet it’s back with a vengeance in much of the U.S.

Naturally, those who promote racialized thinking always put their own perceived race at the top.  In that sense, nothing whatsoever has changed since the 19th century and the “races of man” concept.

Divided, Distracted, Downtrodden: The Social and Political Reality in America Today

Consumerism1

W.J. Astore

The American people are being kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  Divisions are usually based on race and class. Racial tensions and discrimination exist, of course, but they are also exploited to divide people.  Just look at the current debate on the Confederate flag flying in Charleston, South Carolina, with Republican presidential candidates refusing to take a stand against it as a way of appeasing their (White) radical activist base.  Class divisions are constantly exploited to turn the middle class, or those who fancy themselves to be in the middle class, against the working poor.  The intent is to blame the “greedy” poor (especially those on welfare or food stamps), rather than the greedy rich, for America’s problems.  That American CEOs of top companies earn 300 times more than ordinary workers scarcely draws comment, since the rich supposedly “deserve” their money.  Indeed, in the prosperity Gospel favored by some Christians, lots of money is seen as a sign of God’s favor.

As people are kept divided by race, class, and other “hot button” issues (abortion and guns, for example), they are kept distracted by insatiable consumerism and incessant entertainment.  People are told they can have it all, that they “deserve it” (a new car, a bigger home, and so on), that they should indulge their wants.  On HGTV and similar channels, people go shopping for new homes, carrying a long list of “must haves” with them.  I “must have” a three-car garage, a pool, a media room, surround sound, and so on.  Just tell me what mortgage I can afford, even if it puts me deeply in debt.  As consumerism runs rampant, people are kept further distracted by a mainstream media that provides info-tainment rather than news. Ultimately, the media exists to sell product; indeed, it is product itself.  No news is aired that will disturb the financial bottom line, that will threaten the corporations that run the media networks, that will undermine the privileged and the powerful.

The people, kept divided and distracted, are further rendered powerless by being kept downtrodden.  Education is often of poor quality and focused on reciting rote answers to standardized tests.  Various forms of debt (student loan debt, credit card debt, debt from health care and prescription drugs costs, and so on) work to keep the people downtrodden.  Even workers with good jobs and decent benefits are worried.  Worried that if they lose their jobs, they lose their health care. So much of personal status and identity, as well as your ability to navigate American society, is based on your position.  For many it’s lose your job, lose your life, as you’re consumed by debt you can’t repay.

Divided, distracted, and downtrodden: It’s a recipe for the end of democracy in America.  But it also serves as a roadmap to recovery.  To reinvigorate our democracy, we must fight against divisiveness, we must put distractions behind us, and we must organize to fight for the rights of the people, rights like a better education for all, less debt (a college education that’s largely free, better health care for everyone, and far less emphasis on consumerism as a sign of personal and societal health and wealth), and improved benefits for the workers of America, who form the backbone of our nation.

We can’t wait for the politicians.  Most of them are already co-opted by the moneyed interests.  Meaningful change will have to come from us.  That is, after all, the way democracy is supposed to work.