The most dangerous place for black people to live is in white people’s imagination.
So says comedian D.L. Hughley. And surely Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin would concur if they were alive to do so.
But if white people’s imagination is the most dangerous place for black people, it also is the most denigrating. Fresh but superfluous evidence of that arrived recently in the form of a photo on the med school yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. The image, taken in 1984, the year Northam turned 25, depicts two young men, one wearing a KKK hood, the other painted in blackface.
Northam, a Democrat who attends a black church, has trotted out shifting explanations. First he apologized, though he failed to say which man in the picture was him. Then he said neither man in the picture was him. Then he admitted that he did once darken his skin — to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
By now it’s immaterial whether either man in the picture is Northam. The very fact that he thought it could have been, never mind that he admits to having worn blackface at least once, speaks to how ubiquitous this sort of thing — white people pretending themselves black — must have been in his circle.
Sadly enough, this story broke on the first day of Black History Month. Worse, it broke in the state where, 400 years ago this August, the first African slaves arrived.
Unfortunately, slavery — like most every other aspect of black history — is something about which many of us, many white Americans in particular, know precious little. Too bad. If more white people had more than a fleeting grasp of that history, maybe Northam’s career would not be in flames. Megyn Kelly might still be a talk-show host, Michael Ertel might still be Florida’s secretary of state, and dozens of other white people might not have found themselves squirming in embarrassment, trying to explain why they would appropriate someone else’s denigration as their costume.
Nor is this ignorance accidental. Rather, kids — white kids in particular — have been protected from knowing certain hard and ugly truths about their country. Granted, the teaching of history in general is in decline. But only the history of people of color has faced laws and policies attempting to strip it from classrooms. Only these stories have been bleached in textbooks to the point that people who were kidnapped from home and sold like horses can be referred to as “immigrants.”
In banning ethnic studies classes a few years back, Arizona suggested they might “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” Translation: They might make white kids feel guilty about things their forebears did. To which theologian and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel provides the best rejoinder: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Rather than accept that responsibility, America seeks to protect white kids from hurt feelings. In the process, it often inculcates in them an arrogant ignorance. From that, you get Ralph Northam, moonwalking with shoe polish on his face. From that, you get Donald Trump as president and a 17 percent spike in hate crimes his first year in office. From that, you get one woman dead in Charlottesville, nine other people slaughtered in Charleston.
So this Black History Month in the quadricentennial year of American slavery would be an excellent time for white people of conscience to reconsider the high cost of not knowing.
Yes, it’s hard to live in their imagination. But living in their ignorance is no picnic, either.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald.