Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that Virginia’s Democratic Party has been trying and failing to navigate a controversy about blackface because both the governor and the attorney general of the state were found to (or confessed to) having donned blackface in the past. I mention this only to provide some context for a Coleman Hughes piece I was sent by a conservative friend of mine. It may indicate something about the quality of the argument that it is written by a black undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia University instead of by any number of black conservatives with more of a track record. But this 40-something graduate of a state university is going to share some of the ways in which Coleman Hughes’ opinion is not merely weak, but dishonest.
Strike one against this piece: he winds the clock back to last year to remind the reader of Megyn Kelly’s brush with blackface, and the resulting cancellation of her show. Omitted from Hughes’ history is Megyn Kelly’s long history of racist comments with her prior employer, Fox. There’s also her regular practice of bringing on racist ex-cop Mark Fuhrman as a guest to comment on various issues. Despite this history, NBC not only hired her anyway, but gave her the timeslot held by two black anchors (Al Roker and Tamron Hall). What really prompted NBC to cancel her show was a decision that the blowback they were receiving from their own staff wasn’t worth it, due to the low ratings of her show.
Skipping past Hughes brief history of blackface, we get to the heart of his issue: a proposed zero-tolerance policy toward anyone who has ever worn blackface, and the way in which it would “thin out the supply of reputable public figures rather quickly”. To make his point, he then rolls out a long list white actors and late-night personalities who have donned blackface for commercials, movies, or TV. He names a few famous dead actors and actresses for good measure. That’s strike two against this piece. It’s a complete dodge of the issue at hand (which is the past racist behavior of elected officials, and what consequences if any should result), and a transparently obvious dig not just at the left, but the “Hollywood left”.
Having chosen Bouie’s argument as representative, Hughes presumes to knock it down with this: “Anyone uncomfortable with the liquidation of much of America’s artistic class should reject the idea of a retroactive zero-tolerance policy toward blackface. Instead, we should take a more measured approach, one that, without minimizing the ugly legacy of minstrelsy, allows a modicum of mercy for the accused and accounts for the intentions of the transgressor.” We’ll call this strike three, because as with seemingly anything involving redress of harm to black people in this country, the “more measured approach” is already regularly-applied–and the way blackface is treated will be no different.
Even as I write this, Northam remains in office, attempts to shame him into resigning having failed. He is still deploying what others have called “the Shaggy defense”, saying he wasn’t the person in blackface or the person in the Klan hood and robe. He’s even attempted to pivot to making some sort of racial reconciliation the theme of his remaining years in office. That effort is off to a poor start, since he made the obvious mistake of calling enslaved Africans “indentured servants” before being corrected by his black interviewer, Gayle King. Mark Herring remains in office as well.
A fourth strike for the piece’s omission of Republicans from among the “professionally offended”. Despite being a party with a candidate for multiple statewide offices in Virginia who campaigned on preserving Confederate monuments, and a state senate majority leader who edited a yearbook at Virginia Military Institute chock full of racist photos and slurs, this same party (to say nothing of the President of the United States) had the audacity to call for the resignations of Northam, Justin Fairfax (the lieutenant governor facing 2 allegations of sexual assault), and Mark Herring (the attorney general).
Hughes quotes Bayard Rustin at length in advocating for his “more measured approach” to those who demonstrated sufficiently poor judgment to think blackface an appropriate thing to do. Rustin is worth quoting in full here:
“I think the time will come in the future when the Negro will be accepted into the social, economic, and political life of our country when it will no longer be dangerous to do this sort of thing, and then, of course, we would not be opposed to minstrels per se.”
If NBC executives felt sufficiently comfortable with throwing two black anchors out of their time slot in favor of a white woman with a history of making racist comments, how accepted are black people really in the social and economic life of our country? If voters could replace the country’s only black president with the man who spent a majority of the preceding decade cheerleading for the birther movement, how accepted are black people really in the political life of our country? With neighborhoods and schools re-segregating and supposedly-liberal northerners fighting the integration of their schools today, it seems we are a long way from a time when we can afford to tee-hee about minstrelsy.