Virginia blackface scandal: Journalists share their experiences

On February 4, Virginia residents gathered outside the governor’s mansion in Richmond to call for Ralph Northam’s resignation. A racist image from his medical school yearbook page had surfaced on a right-wing news site. Soon, Northam and General Mark Herring, the attorney general, admitted to wearing blackface. National news outlets heralded a “political crisisin their headlines. Reporters scrambled to locate more yearbooks whose contents might include evident racism.

The protesters in Richmond did not limit their outrage to blackface. Under Northam, a state air-quality board had approved plans for a natural gas compression station in Union Hill, a majority-Black community. Protesters proclaimed solidarity with Union Hill’s residents and charged Northam with environmental racism—an idea that’s hardly been mentioned in the whirlwind of coverage since.

The political crisis has largely consumed Black History Month. Journalists in Virginia have felt sickened by the blackface incidents, drained by the work of covering them, and concerned with how best to inform readers about racism in their state. CJR asked them to share what it has been like to follow—and cover—this story, and how it fits into a larger narrative of systemic racism. —Brendan Fitzgerald

Michael Williams, columnist, Richmond Times-Dispatch

It has been physically and emotionally exhausting to cover these stories, and a bit mystifying. One question I’ve had is: Why now? Why are we only now noticing the racist content of yearbooks that are decades old and available for anyone to see? Why did no one care prior to this moment? My conclusion is that racism in America is so normalized that it is often rendered invisible.

Some people are willing to do the work of understanding systemic racism, which largely requires being silent and listening. Others are dismissive of the level of hurt caused by blackface. I’ve noticed a segment of white readers calling for forgiveness for the governor. If you are not the historical victim of blackface, then it’s probably not your proper place to call for absolution—particularly when the act of contrition was as ham-fisted as Governor Northam’s.  

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We need to connect the dots in showing how casual symbolic racism such as blackface is connected to systemic institutionalized racism. This is what Governor Northam, as a result of this controversy, is up against now. People are connecting his past racial insensitivity to his acquiescence to the environmental degradation of a historically Black rural community [Union Hill, in Buckingham County], which will become the site of a natural gas compressor station.

As for the extent that this story has fallen on Black journalists to cover, America’s newsrooms are not nearly diverse enough. Black journalists are underrepresented at the statehouse, at the White House and, within newsrooms, at the decision-making table. So our impact in guiding these stories is limited.

We must continue to scrutinize the symbolic insults—the Confederate battle flag, Confederate monuments, blackface, the racist nickname of the Washington professional football team—but place more attention on institutional injuries that continue to afflict people of color. We must also resist treating America’s 400-year-old original sin like just another political story. These blackface stories give us an opportunity to provide much-needed context to our coverage of race and why it matters. We need to be searching for the Latino version of the blackface story to lend context to our current discussion of the border wall and what’s driving immigration policy.

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Mechelle Hankerson, reporter, The Virginia Mercury

Virginia is generally a pretty calm state, politically speaking. As a journalist, I feel a bit at a loss as to what to do with the events. How do we help readers understand this, how do we move the story forward, how to we add context to something that’s never happened before? It’s a challenge.

It’s easy for people who are not from the South to assume that everyone in a Southern state that upholds or participates in systematic racism is somehow backward, uneducated, or purposefully and violently racist, and that’s just not true. The trouble with systemic racism is that it’s almost never visible and it’s not always purposefully malicious. It’s been in place so long, it can be difficult to see. That doesn’t excuse it, of course, but the main misunderstanding I’ve seen in national commentary is that Northam and Herring did what they did with the intent to be racist and hurtful. I don’t believe that, but I do believe they grew up in a Virginia where their actions were considered funny to most and the people who didn’t find it funny didn’t have a platform to be heard. To put it in perspective: just a few years after the blackface photos were taken, the first Black governor of our state was elected, there was a racially charged “riot” in Virginia Beach, and the official state song still had imagery of slavery. Again, none of this excuses the actions, but a blackface photo runs deeper than just the political implications for the Virginia Democratic Party.

Now that Northam has dedicated the rest of his term to racial reconciliation, reporters need to start watching when and where that happens. What’s interesting is that I’ve noticed a lot of Black journalists or writers being asked how they feel about the situation, but they aren’t the ones doing the reporting. That speaks to a fundamental diversity issue in media, but the result is the same. Black people are being asked to consult, which is more helpful than nothing, but they don’t actually have positions to really do the guiding.

There are endless ways to look at racism, not just in Virginia, but anywhere. It can be seen in housing, crime, governmental policies, even food reporting. Marginalized people live differently and it’s up to reporters to show that difference and point out when it’s because of racism. Racism isn’t a system that is upheld or perpetuated by one political party (that’s become exceptionally clear here in the last month) or one person or even one policy or decision. To serve readers and start a discussion, reporters should report on racism without looking to blame, but to explain.

 

Samantha Willis, journalist

Much of the media coverage I’ve read and watched about Virginia’s blackface scandals has emphasized that blackface is “hurtful” and “offensive” to Black people. And certainly, as a Black woman and native Virginian, I can say emphatically that blackface is deeply hurtful and offensive to me. But by using language that focuses on the emotional impact of racist imagery, many media sources have missed the larger point. The vitriolic racism blackface represents, historically and physically, underpins much of the inequity Black people (and other people of color) still face in Virginia and in American society. Disparities in healthcare, food access, homeownership, etc. are linked to racism and bias in either a historical or contemporary sense, often both. If this point doesn’t come through in articles covering Virginia’s blackface scandal, then it’s not a thoroughly and thoughtfully reported piece of journalism.

Politico’s headline on February 20 was “Virginia voters—including African-Americans—have Northam’s Back.” This implies, without substantiation or context, that the majority of the state’s voting citizens support Governor Northam and his refusal to step down from office after it was revealed that he had worn blackface. It’s not until the final paragraphs of the piece that Politico reveals that the report was based on polls conducted by Quinnipiac University and the University of Virginia, which surveyed fewer than 2,000 people. The Quinnipiac poll gathered responses from 1,150 registered voters in Virginia; UVA’s poll surveyed 636 Virginians. Currently the state has more than 5 million registered voters. This headline, which characterizes Virginia voters as a monolithic block in general support of Governor Northam, is misleading.

Personally, I feel a sense of familiar fatigue when writing about the latest blackface scandals. I am so sick of blackface: seeing images of it, pronouncing it, even reading the word makes me very sad and very tired. Blackface is nothing new in Virginia; our state song emeritus remains the minstrel tune “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” first sung by a white man wearing blackface. Less than three years ago, a local DJ wore blackface to a public Halloween party. I wrote at that time about the racist origin of blackface and have since found myself explaining again and again why blackface is vulgar, racist, and wrong. Yet here I am, writing about blackface again, this time in reference to my own state’s governor. Talking with my friends and colleagues who are Black writers and journalists, we feel a heavy emotional toll doing this type of work, and we recognize this as an extra challenge we must contend with in our reporting. We wish more of our editors and colleagues recognized this, too.

 

Justin Reid, Director of African American Programs, Virginia Humanities

The first few days of incessant news coverage were emotionally draining. I was constantly refreshing news sites, scanning Twitter commentary and hot takes, texting and discussing the most breaking headlines with colleagues and friends. I was in what Toni Morrison calls “the prison of reacting to racism.” For Black people and other people of color, the very serious function of racism is distraction, she says. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being.” After a while, for my own mental self-care, I consciously decided to step away from the news.

There has been a lot of performative outrage, which is easy to do. It’s easy to denounce overtly racist remarks and actions. It’s much harder to be an anti-racist committed to redressing racist systems and relinquishing power. People too often conflate interpersonal racism and systemic racism, as if addressing the former automatically rectifies the latter. The two are connected, but not the same. Explaining to white Americans that, yes, blackface is ignorant, wrong, hurtful, and disrespectful, but then also getting them to understand their everyday complicity, is hard.

Longform journalism is so under-appreciated, yet so important. I’m most interested in the why and how. So if we’re discussing 1980s blackface popularity at schools and universities, for example, I want to know the contextualizing histories that make this occurrence even possible. I also want to know about the larger implications; it’s not insignificant that one of these incidents occurred in a medical school that serves a city with a large Black population.

We need more Black journalists, better paid Black journalists, and Black journalists in editorial leadership roles. Black journalists have a large presence on social media and are shaping public discourse in unprecedented ways. Unfortunately, most newsrooms don’t reflect this diversity.

 

Francesca Leigh Davis, RVA Dirt contributor and activist

Experiencing and reporting the disenfranchisement of Black and brown people is a never-ending familiarity that I’ve had to learn to process. However, the initial release of the Northam blackface photo and the subsequent apologies left me feeling numb. I found myself moving between tears, anger, and disappointment.

Much of the confusion around this particular blackface situation stems around the conversation of a “mistake” from 1984 being so far removed from the ideologies of that same person today in 2019. Blackface is a clearly polarizing racist form that is widely recognized, whether it was enacted in 1984 or today. The concerning issue for me as a community voice is the fact that we did not have to travel back in time to 1984 to have notable, clear forms of racism to report on Governor Northam. Many community organizers and campaign volunteers sounded the alarm shortly after he was elected. Throughout Northam’s campaign he sought the place and opportunity to speak before targeted black audiences to drive support and strangely avoided even saying the word “black.” Northam’s campaign notably omitted Justin Fairfax, his running mate, in some campaign literature. This past Halloween, Northam dressed as James Barbour, a slave-owner and the first governor to reside in the mansion. Numerous times, the community has demanded that the governor have some response to the Buckingham-Union Hill compressor station issue, but he’s been noticeably silent and inactive. For whatever reason it has been difficult for people to see the racism in these sort of things, but people can easily identify with the established wrongness of blackface.

It would be my hope that reporters would find the connection in these “behind closed doors / mistakes of my childhood / it was only a joke” instances to expand on how our society not only disregards the seriousness of racism and the distrust and trauma it induces in the daily lives of so many but also how even the apologies that follow usher in damage when they are not presented sincerely. The multilayered lens required to truly articulate the feelings around this topic at times can only come from a Black journalist.

 

Clarence Thomas, associate professor of broadcast journalism, Virginia Commonwealth University

Reporters have failed to adequately scrutinize the blackface racism story in at least two ways. First, the current Northam blackface scandal might have been preempted if reporters had been more diligent and inquisitive during the Virginia gubernatorial race. In other words, the story should have been covered before Northam became Governor, while he was running.

Secondly, although the blackface story is a big one, the Northam yearbook pictures included blackface and KKK pictures. While blackface pictures are offensive and might hurt the feelings of African-Americans, the KKK is a terrorist organization that has killed people. Reporters should have also given more coverage and examination to the KKK aspect of the story.

These pieces have been edited for clarity.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.