Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Over the past month, we’ve learned just how much racism is too much to sustain a career in American politics.
It took almost 16 years for House Republicans to reprimand Steve King of Iowa for his frequent expressions of explicit racism, by stripping him of his committee assignments. The catalyst? An interview with The New York Times in which he expressed sympathy with racist ideas. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King said.
Compare that slow-moving response with the quick dismissal of Michael Ertel, the Republican secretary of state in Florida, who resigned the day that photos of him in blackface were made public. Taken at a Halloween party in 2005, they show Ertel with a painted face and a costume that make clear he was mocking survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
The reaction after the discovery of a racist image on the medical school yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has been almost as swift. The photo, taken at a party in 1984, shows one person in blackface and another dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, both holding beers and gazing at the camera. Northam initially said he was in the photo, although he couldn’t say which figure he was. He later backtracked, claiming he wasn’t in it and vowing to finish his term.
Nonetheless, Democrats — including Terry McAuliffe, the previous governor of Virginia; the state’s two senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine; its black legislative caucus and most of its congressional delegation; as well as multiple 2020 presidential candidates — are asking him to resign, which would allow Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax to take his place. Fairfax, the great-great-great-grandson of a man enslaved in Virginia — who took his oath of office while carrying his ancestor’s manumission papers — would be the second black governor of Virginia and only the fifth in the nation’s history. To make the situation even more historically resonant, 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of African enslavement in the state.
Put these examples together and you can begin to discern a standard: In American politics, lawmakers can get a pass for almost anything short of open allegiance to racist ideologies or the explicit use of racist imagery.
There is a logic to this dynamic, even as it produces absurd results, like forceful condemnations of racism from a Virginia Republican Party that fielded an unapologetic neo-Confederate for Senate just more than three months ago or calls for Northam’s resignation from a Republican National Committee that otherwise stands firmly behind President Donald Trump.
Put simply, there is a plausible nonracist reading of King’s preoccupation with the preservation of “Western civilization” or the president’s belief that some countries’ residents should be kept off American soil. By contrast, blackface is an unambiguous form of racist mockery with clear origins in the virulent white supremacist history of the United States.
The most popular form of entertainment in 19th-century America, which continued well into the 20th, blackface minstrelsy was defined by its caricature of and gross hostility toward black Americans. In the minstrel show, blacks — and free blacks in particular — were objects of ridicule, lampooned for seeking equality and respectability. Beyond simple mockery, the pleasure of blackface for white performers and their audiences lay in the vicarious experience of an imagined blackness — a wild, preindustrial “savage” nature that whites attributed to black Americans.
Blackface is so thoroughly associated with the worst of American racism that we should expect immediate condemnation of politicians and public figures who have any association with it, even if it’s a decades-old offense.
But this high bar for sanction — essentially a “pics or it didn’t happen” standard for racism — is also a problem. It treats expressions of racist contempt or mockery as the most egregious forms of racism, when that distinction should belong to the promotion of racist policies and ideas. King should have been punished as far back as 2006 when, at a rally in Las Vegas, he smeared undocumented immigrants as killers responsible for a “slow-motion holocaust” of American lives. Likewise, there should have been broad, bipartisan outrage over revelations that a voter identification law passed by North Carolina Republicans in 2013 targeted the state’s black voters with “surgical precision” in order to suppress the vote. Jeff Sessions’ tenure as attorney general — during which, among other abdications of his duty to protect Americans’ civil rights, he directed the Department of Justice to curb its investigations of abusive and racially discriminatory police departments — should have been a national scandal.
If racism is principally a problem of power and resources — of race hierarchy and the denial of life, liberty and opportunity to blacks and other nonwhites — then our political culture ought to expand the offenses that earn the kinds of swift condemnation we’ve seen over the past few days. Voter suppression and the lawmakers who back it deserve the same contempt we save for open racial bigotry; officials behind policies rooted in prejudice, like the travel ban or child separation, ought to be forced from office.
American society is still structured by color. Your health, your wealth — your ability to live and act freely — still turns to a large degree on whether you were born white. Like Ertel, Northam should resign. Virginia’s history with racism is too fraught to allow this association with blackface (to say nothing of the Ku Klux Klan imagery) to stand unaddressed. But any collective reckoning with racism that comes out of this moment must go beyond the personal and offensive to the unequal depths. We should care about racist imagery, but we should care even more about our still-segregated society.
Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.