US & Canada

Blackface scandal: How should politicians apologise?

Ralph Northam Image copyright Getty Images

Two of the most senior politicians in the US state of Virginia are engulfed in a "blacking up" scandal. How should public figures confront transgressions that are decades old, asks writer James Jeffrey.

Skeletons seem to be making a mass exodus from public figures' closets of late.

One of the most high-profile cases is Virginia Governor Ralph Northam being implicated by a racist photo suddenly unearthed from 35 years ago.

Days after that story emerged, another Democrat, Attorney General Mark Herring, released a statement describing, and apologising for, attending a college party as a 19-year-old undergraduate in 1980 dressed up as a black rapper.

The ensuing ruckus, and conflagration of polarised politics and the public court of social media increasing the spread and intensity of news, has generated more questions than answers.

They involve what the governor knew and didn't know about the photo, but also about where the line is drawn between what requires an apology and how to deliver one.

"We all believe in the tradition of personal growth, for ourselves and for other people; there is an acknowledgment that people change, and that storyline is built into our culture and belief systems," says Arthur Markman, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

"But that is overlaid with how politics is always competitive, and part of it is to exploit the weaknesses of opponents - so knowing that, there is a fine line to tread for politicians about how much to admit and address specific allegations."

Northam initially apologised last Friday for the photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook before holding a press conference the next day when he announced that, upon reflection, he didn't believe he was in the photo.

In an almost surreal turn of events, he also volunteered that in the same year he blackened his face to impersonate Michael Jackson for a dance contest.

And days later a Republican, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, faced questions over a 1968 publication he edited that contained blackface photos.


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Suddenly voters in Virginia - a state with a pronounced racial history; it housed the capital of the Confederacy - were left judging whether the governor should remain in office.

"A key issue has become how we assess and calculate these sorts of things for public figures," says Jeremi Suri, a historian and author of The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office, which analyses how successful presidents of the past created unrealistic expectations for subsequent presidents, with enormously problematic implications for American politics.

"Now there is less and less tolerance, both in the US and UK, of evidence of character deficiencies, which formerly might have been brushed over, but are now unacceptable because of concerns those attributes could be carried into one's older years."

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Image caption Times have changed... Judy Garland (right) and Mickey Rooney (centre right) in a 1941 film Babes on Broadway

To apologise or not to apologise, that is the question.

"Given [the] simultaneous politicisation and devaluing of apologies, it is little wonder that public figures apologise so reluctantly and so poorly, with vague conditional regrets, wordy passive language, and out-and-out excuses," says Edwin Battistella, a linguistic and writing professor and author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.

Battistella notes how throughout the history of apologies in American politics it has gradually become both a stigma and expectation for those in public life, resulting in contrasting apologising strategies: the apology tour, a series of speeches and interviews pursued as an expedient opportunity to express regret, versus the non-apology, such as when Oregon Senator Bob Parkwood apologised in 1992 for "the conduct that it was alleged that I did".

At the same time, Battistella says, a more dignified middle ground was struck by the likes of Ronald Reagan, who in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal accepted responsibility.

"You take your knocks, you learn your lessons and then you move on," Reagan said at the time. "That's the healthiest way to deal with a problem."

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Image caption Reagan was contrite after his administration secretly sold arms to Iran

And by George W Bush who faced rumours of a wild, dissolute youth by stating he was a changed man who had rediscovered God.

Nowadays, politicians - and society at large - appear to find themselves at another stage in the development of the politics of forgiveness.

"There's always been skeletons in everyone's closet, but it used to be that if something became an issue, often a public figure did and said something, and then it faded away - but the intensity of social media keeps it in front of us more," Battistella says. "Also, when it comes to taking responsibility, now public figures seem less willing to accept it, while the public are less willing to let the issue go."

The furore over Northam's photo and his conflicting explanations of it, coming so soon after the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Brett Kavanaugh that included criticisms of comments from his high school yearbook, indicates old yearbooks are now firmly in the cross hairs, especially in relation to certain issues.

"This is how attitudes advance - once there were concerns over anti-Semitic attitudes, because that was one problem in the 1960s," Suri says. "Now it is about race and sex: this reflects the spread of democracy, because those issues are now better represented by powerful voices."

But it's also been noted by some that, the photo notwithstanding, Northam has been a progressive governor, across all communities, and appears to have not put a foot wrong during the 35 years since the photo. For now, none of that appears to make much difference to the deluge of criticism over the photo.

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Media captionEdwin L Battistella, author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, says the majority or public apologies fail.

"The public have a right to know about someone's background," says Walter Robinson, editor at large for the Boston Globe, and who led the team that revealed the local Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal (dramatised in the Oscar-winning film "Spotlight").

"Not a right to know everything, but a right about issues relating to character."

But does that include the public having a right to an apology?

"If you don't apologise, it's hard to indicate you've changed," Markman says. "Part of any apology is acknowledging what you did wrong and explaining how you know why, and what you will do differently in the future."

That said, politicians face a particular conundrum in relation to this, Markman notes, especially in America.

"What fascinates me about US politics in the last 25 years is the degree to which politicians are held accountable for consistency as opposed to growth," Markman says. "You can't change your thinking, otherwise you are flip-flopping."

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Image caption Liam Neeson has faced a storm of criticism

There is some logic behind this, Markman grants - when you vote for politicians, you want to be able to rely that they won't suddenly pivot on issues you care about and voted over. But it also misses an essential human reality.

"I look at all my students who live online and wonder what are going to be the new standards for them when they are older," says James Vaughn, a professor in the British Studies department at the University of Texas at Austin. "They may be debating issues such as transgender now, but which in the future will be totally settled, and thus any concerns they aired earlier could appear like racism."

For now, Northam insists he won't resign, and so the spectacle rumbles on - quite likely watched by other politicians ruing the existence of photos from their pasts and considering their options.

"My advice would be time travel, but in the absence of that, I would say cop to everything upfront and make it part of a narrative, such as I am the sum total of all the things I have done, this one thing doesn't represent me, and I will strive to be better," Markman says.

This approach appears to have been adopted by Mr Herring, who came forward before any journalist had gone public with his admission of impersonating Kurtis Blow.

"It sounds ridiculous even now writing it," Herring said in his statement. "But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes - and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others - we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.

That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behaviour could inflict on others," Herring said. "It was really a minimisation of both people of colour, and a minimisation of a horrific history I knew well even then."

But this sort of pre-emptive owning up carries its own risk too.

Actor Liam Neeson is having to do his own emergency apology tour - clarification tour might be more accurate - to explain that he is "not racist" after volunteering information in a recent interview that nearly 40 years ago he once wanted to "kill" a black man for revenge.

America is in a unique position currently when it comes to admitting fault or distancing oneself from it, Vaughn notes, due to its history and issues such as race informing the current polarised political climate.

In countries like the UK, the demand for so-called "virtue signalling" as a form of compensation isn't as great, Vaughn notes, though he says he doesn't know whether this is because it is a condition particular to the US or because other countries are yet to follow suit.

"I would much prefer there was more recognition that people can change," Markman says. "After all, that's what government is all about: enabling ordinary people to have the opportunities to be better versions of themselves."