Two weekends ago, a photograph surfaced showing Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in his medical school yearbook, dated to the early 1980s, wearing a racist costume. In the picture, two white men appear side by side, one in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb. It remains unclear which man is Northam.
Days later, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring made a statement, acknowledging that he too wore “brownface,” in his initial language, stating that he had dressed up as African American rapper Kurtis Blow for a college party in 1980.
Beyond these two men, a flood of other yearbook pictures were shared showing additional instances of young, white, college men wearing blackface and staging what seems to be mock lynching photographs. Several of these yearbooks are publicly available online. So far, these photographs have mostly ranged from the nineteen seventies and eighties, though the history of blackface minstrelsy dates back, at least, to the 18th and 19th centuries.
People are rightfully shocked and incensed about such photographs. They show a particularly jarring form of racist imagery that’s largely passed from public acceptability over the last twenty years or so, though outliers certainly continue to exist.* The photos betray racial prejudices and a racist social system which was obviously not unusual or scandalous at the time - at least to the white folks enacting those dehumanizing tropes. The editors of these yearbooks and their content contributors clearly sensed no reason why documentation of such behavior would one day be a great source of embarrassment.
As a white person who does work regarding white racial and religious identity, I often observe the reactions of white people in situations like these. As a person who identifies as a white, liberal Democrat, I also find myself making note of the responses of this same demographic. I think I have a greater ethical responsibility to engage white folks around our own racial sensibilities, more so than giving paternalistic or white-oriented commentary to people of color. With that being said, I find my mind going back to one particular aspect of the various reactions from white people of my own ilk to these recent developments in (and beyond) Virginia.
It seems that some degree of the shock around Northam and Herring speaks to a certain class-based dimension of our white understandings of white supremacy. While certainly I have a few white colleagues who are not shocked at the idea that upper-middle class, white, young adults would participate in this behavior, that sentiment hasn’t been the case across the board. There seems to be, in other words, a number of white people who initially found it hard to reconcile the idea that these particular “gentlemen” (Northam, Herring, and their buddies) could do such a thing. I’m arguing that this has something to do with the way white people approach intersectionality, or rather, struggle to hold together the intersection of race and class (and we can add gender and sexuality to this, too).
Another way to approach this matter is to ask: Who gets to be racist in the white, liberal social imaginary? When white people tell ourselves stories about racism and white supremacy, what are the types and figures that we use? How do we position ourselves over against other white folks in our attempts to make meaning of the racism we run up against and/or benefit from in our society?
Many younger white liberals, including myself, tend to think first of this behavior as belonging to the Republican Party of the latter 20th century. That assumption, though not universally true, is in many instances very well earned. Nevertheless, the fact that this blackface minstrelsy was performed by two individuals who would come to represent the Democratic party of Virginia pushes against many white liberals' social imagination about who’s capable of overtly racist behavior and who’s not.
In bringing up the notion of social class, I’ve already tipped my hand to suggest that our shock is rooted in something deeper than party affiliation. When we think of political office holders at high levels of state and federal government, we also generally assume they hold a sense of decorum befitting the so-called polite, white middle to upper-middle classes. This is one of many reasons why Trump’s vulgarity and lack of political correctness rocked our political worlds. It’s not that he was unique in ideology, but rather that he so baldly stated what other politicians found more socially acceptable ways to say.
Regarding the economic aspect of class, white folks have have always fostered some form of an internal racial divide between poor whites and not-poor-whites, or white trash and whites who are socially and financially better off. With that thinking, we’ve also deemed it more likely that poor whites are the ones who harbor the most racial animus and engage in the grosser, more overt forms of racist behavior. White supremacist racism is an issue pertaining more “to them” instead of the well-heeled. It also speaks to the typical left-leaning, white assumption that “more education” and “exposure” will rid the world of racism.
These associations of lower-class whites with white supremacy grow more complex as we also position this demographic in terms of religion and region. For nearly one hundred years, white Christian conservatives have been sketched as backward, culturally illiterate, anti-intellectuals who speak with a southern twang - at least in many more corners corners of the media. With the political success of Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the growth of the Religious Right, the idea of the racist, or anti-black and anti-immigrant Republican has also been mapped onto the racist white conservative evangelical. This, again, hasn’t happened without good reasons.
As the flood of books and articles showed after Trump’s election, it was generally assumed that the major demographic of Trump supporters were blue-collar white men who felt disenfranchised and left behind in our post-industrial economy. Even to this day, we have been slow to reckon with the white middle and upper-middle classes who also supported Trump, male and female. I say this again to demonstrate the manner in which white folks continue to designate poor, working class whites as the demographic who gets to be the prototype of the racist person (or the especially vulgar racist).
Thus, the overt racism admitted to by Herring and Northam is disorienting to us (white liberals) because we most often find this type of behavior projected onto images of the the white underclass, the so-called white trash, or the poor self-identifying rednecks - all of whom we assume are under-educated, rural bumpkins who would never make it to such levels of political leadership. We assume those folks would never trade in their Nascar t-shirt for a tailored suit or their Budweiser for a martini.
Even Donald Trump, for example, who speaks with nothing close to a Southern accent, and who obviously isn’t poor, still parades around like a true Southern underclass white diva, complete with an outdated haircut, a tie that’s perpetually too long, awkward fitting suits, and an awful spray-on tan. In other words, even Trump’s outward presentation, which he comically completed with the MAGA trucker cap, also plays into a class association we have with our idealized white racist. It’s no wonder he so handily defeated the likes of more polished, polite politicians such as Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush.
To reiterate, we construct over against this middle to upper-middle class image the symbol of the vulgar white racist. This is the figure of the racist Republican uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, or the bloviating Trump, or the belly-scratching redneck with a Confederate flag flying in his front yard. They are the ones capable of donning blackface or using the N-word, not the well-heeled individuals who were smart enough, wealthy enough, or privileged enough to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree and have respectable professions.
For the scope of this essay, I'm not even close to wading into a conversation about whether or not Northam or Herring should resign. That's a conversation for the people of Virginia and, to be frank, I'm more interested in hearing the various opinions of people of color who have to live amidst these elected officials. I also want to hear more analyses by potentially affected people regarding the political fallout from the potential resignation of the top three elected Democratic officials in their state. Probably not by coincidence, Virginia’s Democratic governor, Democratic attorney general, and Democratic lieutenant governor all came under fire within the span of a week.
Nevertheless, I do think this opportunity affords white folks - white liberals, particularly - yet another chance to examine the contours of our social imaginations and the racial roles that we construct for ourselves and others. I’m heartened by the white colleagues who I see doing the hard work of self-examination, as imperfectly as any of us can do such a thing. Still, I had yet to see this particular aspect of these recent events be discussed, and I hope this small contribution helps push our white self-awareness a little further along the bumpy path to a more just world.
*I’m not suggesting that there haven’t been continued incidences of white people wearing blackface. However, it’s practice has declined considerably since it’s height in previous centuries as a form of minstrel entertainment. While outliers exist, the fact that these recent cases have brought calls for Northam’s and Herring’s resignation speak to the sense that this form of racism, at least, has shifted to other cultural and political practices.
Rev. Marc Boswell, Ph.D., is founding editor of Progressive Southern Theologians. He currently serves as the director of the faith-based non-profit, Together for Hope, in Lake Providence, Louisiana. He has lived in the Delta for the past two years and enjoys photography and writing. His research and teaching interests include constructive/liberation theologies, community development, and race in American culture. He is a proud alumnus of the University of Mount Olive and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University.