A white politician is ignoring calls for his resignation after an old photo of him in blackface recently resurfaced.
I’m not talking about embattled Virginia Governor Ralph Northam who, maybe, wore blackface in medical school, but definitely did so later as part of a “Michael Jackson costume” in a dance contest. Nor am I referring to Mark Herring, that state’s attorney general, who just revealed that as a college student he also once donned blackface.
This time it’s Anthony Sabatini, a Florida state representative who wore blackface in high school when he and a black friend decided to “dress as each other,” as he called it. There’s no indication that the friend used “whiteface,” since this is generally not a thing black people do.
And don’t confuse Sabatini with Michael Ertel, another white Florida politician. After only 16 days as secretary of state, he resigned last month after a 2005 photo of him in blackface became public. To make matters worse, Ertel was dressed as a black female Hurricane Katrina victim, just two months after that devastating storm killed more than 1,800 people.
It’s not just Virginia. It’s not just Florida. This racism belongs to America.
Last month, Tufts University officials condemned a photo of one of its students wearing a black face mask tagged “Yeezy 2020” on Instagram. On Thursday, Gucci “deeply apologized” after pulling from its stores a $900 “wool balaclava jumper” with a design that resembles blackface.
Yet the spotlight is mostly on Virginia, which is boiling over with political turmoil. It’s more than the shoe polish-darkened secrets tumbling from its closets. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is accused of a 2004 sexual assault in Boston during the Democratic National Convention. Vanessa Tyson, his accuser, has released a very detailed statement about the alleged incident. Fairfax claims their sexual encounter was consensual.
“It’s fair to say nobody has seen anything quite like this,” said CBS’s Ed O’Keefe, on “CBS This Morning.” I don’t think he was talking about racism, which is ever-present.
As usual, this is bigger than one state or state house under siege and, as usual, the national conversations are falling short in reflecting that. Especially concerning blackface, Virginia has become a social media punching bag and late-night punchline.
And the hits just keep on coming. On Wednesday, a Virginia police officer assigned to monitor protests around the Northam scandal was suspended for having “an affinity with white nationalist groups.”
With its loaded history from Jamestown to its status as the capital of the Confederacy to the deadly horror of Charlottesville, Virginia is a perfect repository for this nation’s racist ills. Especially outside of the South, there’s a natural tendecy toward haughtiness as if states below the Mason-Dixon Line are the only purveyors of racism.
As a native New Yorker and a longtime Boston resident, I certainly know better. The first time I saw someone in blackface — two young white women on Halloween — it was in Syracuse, N.Y.
Even within Virginia itself, those who live in more liberal northern areas are taking great pains to disassociate from their rural, red-leaning neighbors.
When it comes to racism, kick the can is America’s favorite sport. The latest shocking news always obscures the stubborn facts. Whether it’s Virginia, Texas, or Massachusetts, racism permeates every inch of this country. It always has, and the continued ignorance of that reality is a harbinger that this may never change.
“It was OK to joke around like that. It’s changed, OK?” a defiant Sabatini, the Florida state rep, said. “There is definitely a different standard. I get it.”
But does he?
Racism has always been damaging, dangerous, and dehumanizing. It’s never been a joke to centuries of black people in its crosshairs. Too many white people look at racism as an old scourge, while ignoring the terrorism staring black people directly in our faces.
It’s never just an epithet screamed at a black player in Fenway Park, a black man arrested and beaten by police convinced he’d stolen his own car, or a grainy photo of a now-prominent politician donning dark makeup and mocking a community. It’s never just the frat boys, the sorors, or the jocks. Racism isn’t a rough patch on the American road. It’s the whole road.
Virginia’s woes aren’t isloated to old college parties any more than racism is restricted to certain states or regions. Somewhere, a white person is scrambling through their attic or basement looking for their old yearbook. They’re hazily recalling that photo with their pals, smiling and mugging, an Afro wig askew and their face literally covered by their callous disregard for another race. And they’re praying it never goes viral.
Eventually, Virginia will sort itself out. The state will — or won’t — have a new governor. Blaring headlines will fade, and we won’t be talking so much about that state’s order of succession. And we will have learned nothing about how the past infects the present, and consumes the future.
When we spend so much time ogling the flames enveloping our neighbor’s house, we neglect the noxious smoke gathering in our own.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.