As he was dying of AIDS-related pneumonia, the tennis great Arthur Ashe answered a reporter’s question about the greatest burden he had faced in life. The reporter might have expected Ashe to cite his diminishing health. Instead, Ashe, who grew up in segregated Richmond, Va., said that “being black is the greatest burden I’ve had to bear.”
Ashe’s answer is as relevant now as it was then, an open window into this nation’s persistent, unrequited struggle with race. By now we all know the news about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both white Democrats. Herring has admitted wearing blackface as a Halloween costume in the 1980s. Northam weirdly suggested he might have done the same before retracting that admission. Meanwhile, Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican, edited a 1968 college yearbook filled with blackface photos.
Such incidents should not be minimized as youthful mistakes, but seen as racially insensitive moments that expose this nation’s inability to confront and exorcise its demons. Days before Virginia’s blackface controversy exploded as a national disgrace, a Pew Research Center survey found that white adults are about twice as likely as black adults to say the use of blackface as part of a Halloween costume can be acceptable — 39 percent to 19 percent. And about one in three Americans surveyed say blackface is always or sometimes acceptable.
That’s disheartening and remarkably tone-deaf. The color of one’s skin is personal and defining, the negative impacts of which African-Americans have confronted for decades. Unjust laws in this country revolved for most of our history around skin color, mandating where African-Americans could eat, shop, travel, work or live. Skin color was not a joking matter. It determined life or death, and was the measuring stick that denied opportunities. And that’s why blackface is not benign.
As NAACP president Derrick Johnson recently wrote in response to the Virginia incidents, this is “the consequence of our nation’s collective unwillingness to recognize that 400 years of dehumanizing language and imagery have a cultural impact that expresses itself through explicit and implicit bias.”
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS