RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Virginia's legislative black caucus wants answers about the numerous scandals embroiling that state's leaders. They want an investigation of the sex assault allegation against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. The caucus also called for more action from Attorney General Mark Herring following his apology for wearing blackface when he was 19. And they reiterated a call for Governor Ralph Northam to resign over his blackface controversy. Herring and Northam have said they were unaware of the harm they were doing at the time. I asked Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team about the history of blackface in America and why it has endured.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: It is a very long, complicated history. Blackface predates the Civil War, but it really gained traction as part of the minstrel shows that became wildly popular in the latter part of the 19th century. At one point, it was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States. Usually white performers, but not always, would apply some cork or some dye to their skins to blacken their skin. Maybe they'd apply some bright-red lipstick or wear white gloves to perform as these grotesques of what they imagined these newly emancipated black people to be. And it was meant to dehumanize. Blackface corresponds with the rise of Jim Crow segregation and with spectacle lynchings. And the popularity of blackface, like, continued well into the 20th century. By the 1920s, the vaudeville legend Al Jolson was the country's most popular entertainer.
DEMBY: Most of his act was in blackface. He was the star of the first talky, which he performed in blackface. And the conventions of vaudeville are so steeped in blackface imagery that you get Mickey Mouse in white gloves. Like, Mickey Mouse is...
MARTIN: Mickey Mouse.
DEMBY: Mickey Mouse (laughter).
MARTIN: Mickey Mouse is an outgrowth of blackface?
DEMBY: Mickey Mouse - according to some researchers of that period, Mickey Mouse is a minstrel figure. And so that's why you see this sort of convention around cartoon characters in white gloves because that's part of vaudeville. And so much of the DNA of vaudeville is blackface.
MARTIN: OK, so this is offensive. I mean, when African-Americans - when anyone who understands the history sees this, you understand that this is offensive. And yet, it happens. And yet, white people are still putting blackface on, I mean, in these recent examples. This was happening as recently as the '80s.
DEMBY: Right. I mean, one of the things we talk about a lot on the Code Switch podcast is the way that the civil rights movement created these taboos around open racism. So in the post-civil rights world, blackface moves away from public spaces and sort of retreats to all-white spaces - spaces where there's not going to be a lot of social sanction for it. So...
MARTIN: Where no one raises an eyebrow. They're just...
DEMBY: Where there's just not going to be any black people around, right?
DEMBY: And just to back up a bit, that's a lot of spaces that white people inhabit. So a study by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2012 found that white people were significantly less likely to have friends of another race than were black or Latino people. In fact, three quarters of white people, the study found, had entirely white social networks. So the median white person's contact with black people is almost one of abstraction. And so these are spaces that are not really hard to cultivate - these super white spaces. And so when we're looking at these stories in the news, we're seeing fraternities at some college parties. These are spaces that are not necessarily codified as white spaces or resistant to people of color, but they're spaces that are functionally so.
MARTIN: Right. So that means in these all-white spaces, people - they're basically not held accountable. There's no one there to raise their hand and say, hi, that is super offensive to me.
DEMBY: Right. That's what seems to be happening. And of course there is this continuum, right? Some people are just oblivious. And some people are much more malicious, right? Obviously, we live in a time when someone posts something to social media, there's the slippage between these all-white contexts. And this larger social media space, on Twitter in particular, is much browner and younger than the country at large. And so these very different histories with these imageries are sort of butting up against each other.
MARTIN: So social media makes it easier to hold people accountable for racist behavior.
DEMBY: Yes. It also makes it easier for these images to spread in the world, right? I mean, the picture that seems to have ensnared Ralph Northam was buried in a medical school yearbook. Of course, now someone posts a racist picture to Snapchat or Twitter or Instagram, that can slip out of the sort of safe space into a much more contentious space very quickly. One of the things that is also happening here is that blackface has always had - especially in the post-civil rights world in which it was dangerous, right? That danger is part of the reason why people did it, right? It's part of the reason that people did it in these safe spaces.
MARTIN: Oh, so they knew there was something wrong about it.
DEMBY: Right. It's part of the sort of like - the thrill, I imagine.
MARTIN: The taboo.
DEMBY: The taboo of it, right? And so this is something that's true about the history of blackface minstrelsy - is that it was this element of mischief. This element of, like, we're doing something naughty is obviously much more insidious than that, but we're doing something naughty that always animated it, right? And so it's probably important for us to think about the ways in which racism can be animated by things that are fun, by things that...
MARTIN: Right, Mickey Mouse.
DEMBY: Mickey Mouse, right (laughter)?
MARTIN: Like, he's playful, and it's entertainment. And people are singing and dancing.
DEMBY: Absolutely. It becomes habituated in that way because it doesn't seem like malice. It doesn't seem like cruelty, right? And so you have something like, you know, the mascot of a sports team. Like, people do the tomahawk chop, and people do these other things that a lot of people from native communities will say are really offensive. And the defense for that is often that, like, this is fun for us; this is a thing that brings people together. But minstrel...
MARTIN: Right, we don't mean anything by it; it's not - yeah.
DEMBY: That's right. It's just in good fun. But that's always been important to the way that people have justified these very mocking racist images.
MARTIN: Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch team. Thanks so much, Gene.
DEMBY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.