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Why Won't Blackface Disappear From American Culture?

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When Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was recently confronted with a page from his medical school's 1984 yearbook, he apologized for being one of the two people in a photograph - on his page in the yearbook - that showed a white man in blackface, and a person dressed in the hood and sheet of the Ku Klux Klan.  Calls for his resignation poured forth from both Democrats and Republicans, in VA and around the country.  The next day, he announced that neither of the people in the photograph were him, but he had worn blackface and moon-walked in a Michael Jackson imitation at around the same time in his life, some 30 years ago.  

Today – we simply ask:  “What is the deal with white men dressing in blackface?”  Is it ever to don the look of minstrelsy, which for generations has been recognized as demeaning to and racist against people of color?  It is a practice that certainly did not begin or end in the 1980s, but how should the fact that two government officials wore blackface at that time inform how we think about what they did, and what form their contrition should take? 

E.R. Shipp won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1996.  She has written for The New York Times, The New York Daily News and The Washington Post. She currently pens a biweekly column for The Baltimore Sun, and she is a journalist in residence at Morgan State University in the School of Global Journalism and Communication. E.R. Shipp joins us from the studios of our friends at WEAA Radio.

Lawrence Ross is the author of six books, the latest of which is Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America's Campuses.  He joins us on the line from New York. 

Host, Midday (M-F 12:00-1:00)