At around the time Ralph Northam and other Virginia Democrats were wearing blackface, a fraternity at UNC-CH hosted annual “Southern Parties” that, in 1979, featured a mock lynching of a brother in blackface by two other brothers in KKK robes and hoods. Another fraternity dressed in Confederate uniforms and posed in front of Silent Sam with a Confederate battle flag. It’s all documented in the school yearbook. I assume any Democratic politician associated with those fraternities is about hear about it. I also assume Republican politicians associated with them won’t. 

At the time, the Daily Tarheelsharply criticized the fraternity with the mock lynching as an example of ongoing racism in the university. I’m sure conservatives blasted the editorial as being too politically correct. A substantial portion of the white Southern society in the late 1970s and 1980s found the photos more funny than offensive. 

A lot of those fraternity brothers probably still hold similar views to the ones they held then. They just don’t mention them in mixed company. Some, though, probably realize how offensive their actions were and are now embarrassed to have participated in such racist shenanigans. We should applaud people who move beyond the negative attitudes with which they were raised. 

In the late 1960s and 70s, the university accommodated racism as it tried to balance the fear of change with the reality of integration. Granville Towers in Chapel Hill was built so white students didn’t have to live with black ones as the university was being integrated. Before Granville Towers was built, all freshmen had to live on dorms. However, the university allowed freshmen to live in Granville if their parents were willing to pay the price. They were the equivalent to segregationist academies that popped up all over the South in the wake of integration. That’s the environment in which the yearbook photo was taken.

I imagine we’ll see more images emerge in coming weeks. If those photos showed up in the UNC-CH yearbook, I can only imagine what’s in the yearbooks of the Southern private colleges that cater to the descendants of Southern aristocracy. Racism wasn’t shoved under a bed or hidden in a closet. It was on full display until about the 1990s. 

Today, it shows up in public policies. The legislature enacting a bill to protect Confederate monuments in the wake of the killing nine black parishioners in a Charleston church was a tip of the hat to neo-Confederates. Voter suppression programs that make voting more difficult for older African-Americans might be meant to deliver political results but they pack a racist impact. Finally, the failure to fix and restore the Voting Rights Act shows a disturbing disregard for the harm suffered by African-Americans in the South for all but 50 of the past 400 years or so. 

Those who say that the Virginia incidents show that Democrats were the racists in the photos 35 years ago don’t understand racial politics. Racism doesn’t doesn’t live permanently in one political party. Political parties and politicians exploit racism.

Democrats fanned the flames of racial tension in the early 1900s to consolidate their power. Since the Civil Rights era, the GOP has been the party that uses racial resentment to motivate a portion of their base to win elections. Until both parties reject those tactics while admitting that racism is still a powerful force in American society, we won’t truly heal the divide caused by slavery and Jim Crow. 

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