How UVa Can Make a Useful Contribution to the Northam Black Face Scandal

University of Virginia President James E. Ryan

Poor University of Virginia. The College of William & Mary hogged the glory among progressives when Katharine Rowe, W&M’s new president, gratuitously inserted herself into the Ralph Northam blackface controversy by uninviting the governor from attending the annual celebration of the university’s 1683 founding.

Responding to news of the racist image in Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, Rowe announced four days ago, “That behavior has no place in civil society – not 35 years ago, not today. It stands in stark opposition to William & Mary’s core values of equity and inclusion.”

How, oh, how could UVa signal its virtue as well? UVa’s newly installed president, James Ryan, had no event from which to retract a gubernatorial invitation. I have an idea on how UVa could make a useful contribution to the controversy, which I’ll get to in a moment. But Ryan opted for expressing his politically correctness in an open letter to the Board of Visitors and the university community: 

… This has been a sad and bewildering time for the Commonwealth.  The photo circulated the other day was shocking and racist, no matter who was in it.  This community knows all too well the pain and hurt that can come from reopening wounds, many of which remain to be fully healed.  It is clear that this photo has deepened those wounds for many people in our community, the Commonwealth, and beyond, and it is equally clear that the photo is antithetical to the values of our community.

Over the past year, I have come to know Governor Northam as a decent and kind man, with an admirable record of service to our Commonwealth and the nation. But I also believe that any leader—at any level—depends on the trust and support of the people he or she represents.  If that trust is lost, for whatever reason, it is exceedingly difficult to continue to lead.  It seems we have reached that point.

Regardless of what happens and when, it is my hope that this painful episode will underscore the need to continue the conversations begun here and elsewhere in the Commonwealth about our past and the ways in which it continues to influence our present.  I hope as well that it will underscore the importance of continuing to do all that we can to ensure that our community is one based on equal dignity and mutual respect.

So, a 34-year-old photo has deepened wounds, is antithetical to university values, and has undermined Northam’s ability to lead. Therefore…. what? Ryan didn’t join the call for Northam’s resignation. There was absolutely no point to this missive other than to signal his opposition to racism, which was never in question to begin with.

What the letter signifies to me may not be what Ryan intended: (1) He’s willing to join the condemnation of Northam before all the facts are in; (2) Northam’s “admirable record of service” doesn’t outweigh an incident (of as-yet uncertain nature) from the distant past; and (3) we can expect more virtue signaling from UVa’s president in the future.

How UVa can contribute to the debate. If Ryan wants to inject himself into a debate, he can make a useful contribution. He could direct his cadre of researchers digging into the history of race and racism at UVa and Virginia to develop a comprehensive history and timeline of blackface. A key question swirling around the Northam blackface scandal is the extent to which college students dressed in blackface back in the 1980s and the degree to which the practice was considered odious. When judging Northam’s actions 35 years ago, context matters. UVa can provide that context.

  • How frequently did students at UVa and other Virginia institutions dress up in black face back in the early 1980s?
  • When did progressives begin to focus on the use of black face as offensive to African-Americans, and how widely accepted was their point of view in 1984?
  • What policy, if any, did the University of Virginia and other universities, both in Virginia and nationally, have toward black face in the early 1980s? Was the practice banned? Was it even an issue that concerned college administrators?
  • What meaning did students attach to black face? Was it an expression of hatred and contempt, or were students just oblivious to how African-Americans might react? Did students think of dressing up in black face and KKK costumes as a lark? Or was it deliberately transgressive: a statement of rebelliousness against emerging norms and politically correct authority?
  • To what extent did black people care about the issue in 1984? Did they slough it off as the antics of immature white kids? Did they silently resent it? Did they mobilize to attack the practice? When did the practice come to be defined as “deeply wounding?”

UVa can inform the debate over Northam by providing background that tends to be forgotten when people project 2019 values onto 1984. Whether Ryan is interested in providing context, which may or may not support the rush to condemn Northam, is an open question. How he follows up on this incident will reveal much: Does he want UVa to explore all aspects of the past as the university “continues the discussions” about race, or just the leftist narrative?

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11 responses to “How UVa Can Make a Useful Contribution to the Northam Black Face Scandal

  1. re:

    ” How frequently did students at UVa and other Virginia institutions dress up in black face back in the early 1980s?”

    Perhaps there is a good reason why UVA has done this after all?

    ” The Center for Race and Public Education (CRPES) in the South conducts and supports empirical research on a variety of issues that lie at the intersection of race, education, and schooling in the southern United States. CRPES advances research that illuminates the causes, consequences, and potential means of ameliorating disparities in African American youth’s educational experiences and achievement. This interdisciplinary center will bring together education scholars from history, psychology, philosophy, and sociology to investigate the many facets of these disparities.”

    * When did progressives begin to focus on the use of black face as offensive to African-Americans, and how widely accepted was their point of view in 1984?”

    My guess is that black folks have said all along that black face is exceptionally offensive… the question is WHY do we ONLY ask about “progressives” focusing on it?

    * What policy, if any, did the University of Virginia and other universities, both in Virginia and nationally, have toward black face in the early 1980s? Was the practice banned? Was it even an issue that concerned college administrators?

    And having programs to reflect on their past is a bad or good thing?

    * ” When did the practice come to be defined as “deeply wounding?”

    you mean “defined” by Black folks or white folks?

  2. A thoughtful proposal, Jim.

  3. I don’t think UVA can contribute a darn thing, and the issues you propose would be a waste of energy and effort. Something today’s universities are darn good at!

  4. Start here …

    https://vpdiversity.virginia.edu/sites/vpdiversity.virginia.edu/files/PCSU%20Report%20FINAL_July%202018.pdf

    A follow up report on race and UVA after abolition is underway. I can’t believe it will be pretty.

  5. Rural and suburban RoVa breeds a peculiar species of elitist, entitled preppy. Always white and almost always wealthy these bizarre preppies don their uniforms of topsiders, lime green (or plaid) pants and gator shirts. They pile into the convertible Beemer Dadsy bought for them and congregate at their “preppy only” fraternities, sororities and cocktail parties. There they swizzle Tanqueray and tonics and while away the hours discussing the War of Northern Aggression and other bizarre theories they were brought up to believe. They giggle at the antics of the society’s little people (everybody except themselves) – some of whom have never even been to Richmond (can you imagine!). Blackface and Klan outfits are height of hilarious party attire. After all, there won’t be any of those undesirable non-preppies at their parties to take offense. These were the people of the Byrd Machine and, to a large extent, are still the people running the state.

    I distinctly remember Aug 16, 1977. It was the day Elvis died and my first day at the University of Virginia. It was also the first time I saw an honest to goodness preppy. Actually, I saw four of them – two men and two women in a convertible. Weird rubbery duck shoes, gaudy neon colored pants, shirts with lizards on the front and odd looking glasses I would later learn to be horned rim. I distinctly remember thinking that they must be going to some strange costume party. Only later would I discover that they were in their daily wear and if they were going to a costume party they’d be dressed in some hilarious blackface, Klan or Nazi outfit.

    Good old Mr. Ryan might want to page through a few decades of UVA yearbooks before he gets too virtuous. After all, Ryan is not from RoVa and he may think those oddly dressed students are just normal people heading to a costume party.

  6. Are we to conclude that the governor’s racism exhibited in 1984 is worse than his promotion of infanticide in 2019?

  7. Among other facets of the history of black face in popular American culture, UVa might examine the following instances cited by Matt Margolis of liberal musicians and comedians: https://pjmedia.com/trending/9-liberal-celebrities-who-have-a-blackface-problem/:

    Ted Danson (1993)
    Joni Mitchell (1976)
    Billy Crystal (2012)
    Cyndi Lauper (1984)
    Sarah Silverman
    Jimmy Fallon (2000)
    Jimmy Kimmel (2000)
    Tom Hanks (2012)
    Fred Armisen (2000 +)

  8. To say that I am disappointed in James Ryan’s performance as president of the University of Virginia would be an understatement.

    His more recent “open letter to the Board of Visitors and the university community” perfectly encapsulates the scope and depth of my disappointment, and likely that of many UVA graduates.

    UVA needs to confront its growing list of sins, past and present.

    For example, we need a full and complete, open to the public, video recorded, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, debriefing on the Hunton & Williams report. Only then can we, as part of the “university community” fully understand what happened in Charottesville in the Spring and Summer of 2017, and UVA’s roll in fomenting those events that did so much damage to race relations in Virginia and the nation.

    We need a similar investigation in the Jackie affair – the events leading up to the Jackie affair, and the events that followed in the wake of the Jackie affair. And UVA’s roll in fomenting that scandal, that also adversely affected gender relations in Virginia and in the nation. This would include an investigation into why the long promised Washington DC law firm report on that squalid matter was never delivered to the public as long promised.

    Finally, we need an end to vapid, empty, virtue signaling open letters from our UVA president to the Board of Visitors and the university community. Surely, the president has more serious work to do, for the benefit of us all, after such a fine book he wrote, and that was so helpful to his winning his current position at UVA.

  9. I had a question and that is – how does the rest of the Nation perceive UVA?

    Do they think it is a Southern Tradition institution?

    And by that, I mean , in terms of out of state applications – do black folks seek to attend UVA in demographic numbers or does UVA have to focus on recruiting “enough” black folks?

    Do the black folks who actually attend UVA think of it’s culture and the culture in Virginia as not racial but mostly color-blind?

    In general , do black folks consider Virginia in terms of culture more like the Deep South or not?

    We’ve had several folks in BR who are white and who attended UVA say that they saw none of the stuff that Northam is accused of…. going on…. yet apparently Mr. Herring was there at UVA in the early 1980s and engaged in it…. and unless one believes he was alone in doing it….. and not participating with others…

    UVA has recently been saying that they need to address their own past policies and culture and that’s received by some as PC navel gazing…

    so what’s real history of UVA on these issues?

  10. It could be interesting to hear from a Black Virginian here in BR – their perspective. no?

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