VCU Holds Panel Discussing Blackface Scandal in Virginia
By Logan Reardon
VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture hosted “Blackface, the scandal and the media: a discussion about racism in Virginia” on Feb. 25. The event – part of the Robertson School’s Speaker Series – tackled the Virginia government’s blackface scandal from both a societal and from a journalistic standpoint. Dr. Clarence Thomas – a tenured associate professor of mass communications at VCU – moderated the panel. Talking with him after the panel, Thomas said he was asked by the school to moderate, and that it was an easy decision for him to say yes.
“It was easy to me because that’s what I do,” Thomas said. “I teach a diversity in the media course… and I’ve moderated panels for over 40 years at different educational institutions.”
The panel consisted of Mechelle Hankerson – a reporter for Virginia Mercury, Jeff South – an associate professor of journalism at VCU, Michael Paul Williams – a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Samantha Willis – a writer and co-creator of the Unmasking Series in Richmond and Charlottesville.
At the beginning of the panel, it was questioned why the press never found Gov. Northam’s yearbook photo during his campaign back in 2017.
“It’s clearly a failing of journalists that vet people who are running for high public office,” South said.
The panel agreed that this scandal is a changing moment in the way journalists vet political candidates.
“I think journalists, to a certain extent, have been embarrassed by being caught off guard,” Thomas said. “One of the questions that I asked in this whole dilemma was ‘why didn’t we catch this when he was running for governor?’ That’s when it should have been caught.”
Another question brought up was why the individual wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe pictured on Gov. Northam’s yearbook page was not scrutinized as heavily as the person in blackface. In Thomas’ and the other panelist’s opinions, the KKK robe is the worst part of the yearbook page.
“Of course, the whole notion of blackface is hurtful and insulting, but the Ku Klux Klan is a domestic terrorist organization that has killed people,” Thomas said. “Why was so much made of the blackface and not as much made of the Ku Klux Klan picture on a governor’s page?”
Hankerson said she believes the individual in the KKK robe was not as heavily scrutinized by the media because people know what the organization stands for, and not many average people know the damaging history of blackface.
“We all know about the Klan, but I think in the eyes of most newsroom leaders, that didn’t need the explanation, so it didn’t get the attention it deserved,” Hankerson said.
Hankerson also said she contributes the lack of diversity in newsrooms to the lack of scrutiny of the individual in the KKK robe.
“There aren’t black voices standing up and saying, ‘yea the blackface thing is really bad, but you know what’s worse is there’s a dude in a KKK robe and we should probably ask the governor if that’s him or who it was if it’s not him,’” Hankerson said. “So much of this issue, the way that is has been bubbled by the media from the beginning, goes back to the fact that there aren’t enough minority voices in journalism to guide that coverage.”
For Willis, seeing both the KKK robe and blackface in the same picture was a “bad two-for-one deal.”
“The fact that not even media members whose job it is to investigate and to dig into this scandal didn’t give enough thought to say ‘let’s delve into the Klan part, let’s break down why this is such a fundamental failing for our Governor to be appearing in a photo not only with blackface but also a representation of a domestic terrorist group’ I think speaks to the fact that racism is still deeply embedded in all facets of our society,” Willis said.
It was recently discovered that old yearbooks from the Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia have photos containing blackface in them. Some were even found as recently as 1989 after the two schools merged to form Virginia Commonwealth University. Hankerson, a graduate of VCU, said she “unfortunately wasn’t surprised.”
“I think that, with most universities, it would be hard for us to find a yearbook without some sort of blackface or racist image from the past,” Hankerson said. “We need to have a very serious conversation as a state about what we do now to make sure that we have truly moved past this.”
Williams said the best situation for Virginia to move forward after this scandal is to “address racist policies that mostly affect people of color.”
“We can’t resign our way out of this problem,” Williams said. “Having people resign because they put shoe polish on their face doesn’t solve [racist policies]. There’s always going to be something else. How do we have a real dialogue and get to the people who need to hear the message?”
Willis said the only way we can work towards ending racism is by holding racist individuals to the same high standard as the “Me Too” movement has been for those who have sexually assaulted others.
“Unless we hold racism as the same type of immoral stain on our society that things like sexual assault are, we’ll never get past the problem,” Willis said. “We’ll never progress as a society and make this a more equitable place for all citizens.”
Thomas said that living in the “digital age” has not really made things better in terms of ending racism, but it is “much easier now to expose people for what they do.”
“Nobody can do anything in this world without it being scrutinized,” Thomas said. “Social media is revolutionizing society.”
Thomas said that trying to eradicate these issues from society is tough because merely punishing someone doesn’t change their prejudices.
“You can try to fix someone’s actions, but that doesn’t mean you fix their heart and soul,” Thomas said. “If we had the secret to that, well then it would happen overnight. It’s a societal and a personal thing, and very difficult to [solve]; but nonetheless, it needs to be done.”