Opinion

KOLB: Ralph Northam Provides A Teachable Moment On Blackface (But Will He Survive It?)

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam saw his governorship, leadership capacity, and credibility implode spectacularly over 24 hours. His Feb. 2 press conference revealed a politician who was deluded about the reality of his dilemma.

The day before his remarkable press conference, Northam announced that he was one of two people depicted on his 1984 medical-school yearbook page, but he didn’t know whether he was the person in blackface holding a beer, or the person wearing a white Ku Klux Klan outfit. The next day his story changed: he expressed shock and outrage at the clearly racist picture and now claimed that he was not in the picture at all and had no idea how the picture ended up on his yearbook page (even though other pictures on the page clearly came from him). He said he had never seen the yearbook and had not purchased a copy.

Then he confessed that in 1984, after graduation, he participated in a Texas dance contest where he dressed as Michael Jackson, performed a version of Jackson’s famous “Moonwalk” complete with glove, and added some shoe polish to his face to better impersonate the signer.

Apparently, he won the contest.

Now, 35 years later, Northam apologizes for his racial insensitivity. At the same time, he has no idea why a couple of upperclassmen at his undergraduate school, Virginia Military Institute, nicknamed him “coonman.” It’s altogether possible that the nickname was just another Davey Crockett moment, but the overall pattern was disturbing enough to generate bipartisan outrage and calls for his resignation.

(Note to Northam’s 2017 gubernatorial opponent, former Republican National Committee chair, Ed Gillespie: you might consider an “oppo malpractice” claim against those you paid to conduct opposition research on Northam. Had they done their job, you’d probably be Virginia’s governor today).

Throughout its history, Virginia has provided our nation with teachable moments about race relations. Northam’s experience, coming not quite two years after the Charlottesville demonstrations, offers yet another.

By 1984, however, Northam should have known that blackface was not funny, especially to African Americans. But let’s go back more than two decades before Northam’s prize-winning “Moonwalk,” to a book that should be mandatory reading for every American high school student before graduation. In 1961, a white, Texas journalist named John Howard Griffin published a truly extraordinary book entitled “Black Like Me.” Griffin wanted to find out “what it is like to be a Negro in a land where we keep the Negro down.”

To conduct his research on what he called “the feeling tone,” Griffin saw a dermatologist who provided him with a pigment-changing oral medication. Griffin also endured strong ultraviolet radiation and shaved his head. Between October and December 1959, he traveled throughout the Deep South as a black man and recorded his experiences. Towards the end of his trip, as the pigment-changing medication wore off, Griffin used dye and shoe polish to darken his skin so that he could visit an establishment one day as a black man, the next day as a white man.

For young, especially non-black, Americans today who may have no empathetic sense of how race discrimination feels, how it is perceived, how it might be hurtful, Griffin’s book remains an eye-opening experience and an enduring testament of what it feels like to be judged solely by your skin color. Griffin also wanted to expose how “cultural conditioning” influenced racial attitudes and how a greater “level of shared human experience” might reduce racial tensions.

“Black Like Me” has now sold millions of copies and has been translated into several foreign languages, but when it was released, Griffin was attacked and called by some “an enemy of the white race.” Griffin died from diabetes in 1980 at age 60.

In the mid-1960s, Griffin spoke about “Black Like Me” at my high school. While I did not meet him, I nonetheless remain transfixed by his courage and his story — and I immediately read the book. Having grown up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore when segregation was still practiced, I found Griffin’s experience one that bridged racial barriers in a remarkably eye-opening manner.

As a nation, we will continue to find ways to address the racial issues that have remained a supreme challenge from our founding days.  Griffin’s book should be required reading for all Americans, young and old.  It will inform our ongoing national discussion and give each American a greater sense of empathy, understanding, and compassion.

Charles Kolb served as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the Bush White House from 1990-92.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.