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Debacles In Blackface

Megyn Kelly.
Megyn Kelly on a trip to Russia in March 2018. Photo courtesy Kremlin.ru, via the Press Service of the President of Russia.

When Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel testified before a state House committee last Thursday morning, he was one of the rising stars of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new administration. By afternoon, Ertel’s career in the administration – and probably his career in public life – was over.

Ertel’s near-instantaneous fall from grace had nothing to do with his appearance before the committee, where he discussed lawsuits left over from the state’s 2018 election recounts and efforts to shield the 2020 elections from cyberattacks. A Republican like the new governor, Ertel had joined the DeSantis administration two weeks earlier after serving 14 years as Seminole County’s elections commissioner.

His appointment to a job as the state’s top elections official drew support from both parties due to Ertel’s track record as an efficient, impartial administrator who had worked hard to encourage participation by eligible young and infrequent voters of all parties and ethnic groups. Seminole County includes many of Orlando’s northern suburbs, as well as the city of Sanford, which has a sizable minority population. It is part of the Interstate 4 corridor, which is considered the most important “swing” region in the nation’s most populous swing state. It is an impressive achievement for any elections commissioner to spend 14 years in the job there and come out with the sort of bipartisan respect that Ertel enjoyed.

And then it was gone, in a flash – thanks to a photo taken 14 years earlier.

The images published by the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper on its website show Ertel attending a Halloween party in 2005, two months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding regions, killing more than 1,800 people and driving hundreds of thousands from their flooded or destroyed homes. Ertel is seen in blackface, wearing a New Orleans Saints bandanna and a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend “Katrina victim.” (The legend apparently appears in other photos that were not published with the newspaper’s initial story.)

Good grief.

Ertel made no attempt to defend or explain himself when the photos surfaced. “There’s nothing I can say,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. On that point he was at least partly right. Ertel could not have said anything to make his behavior less egregious. Yet he could have apologized for the cruelty and stupidity it represented. The most charitable explanation for his failure to do so is that he must have been stunned at this obvious end to his public sector career. Ertel resigned hours after the photos surfaced.

Ertel’s professional demise is just the latest in a series of recent debacles involving blackface. Most prominently, former NBC Today host Megyn Kelly lost her job (though not her $69 million compensation package) after she defended the idea of Caucasian people using blackface as part of Halloween costumes if they have no intent to demean or disparage black people by doing so. Kelly made an abject on-air apology the next day and conducted a lengthy interview with African-American journalists Roland Martin and Amy Holmes on the role blackface played in the stereotyped, degrading and dehumanizing portrayal of black people on stage and screen – a portrayal that was near-universal through the majority of the 20th century, and persisted in some respects even longer.

The apology did not salvage Kelly’s position at NBC. Whether she will be able to resume her career at all is still an open question. Certainly any professional journalist worth even a fraction of what NBC (not very thoughtfully) paid Kelly ought to have been well aware of the role blackface played in the depiction of African-Americans in this country’s media history, and how that media was used in support of a panoply of racism that reached its height in the South but was never confined to that region.

For decades, often with the use of blackface, Hollywood caricatured black Americans as either threats, servants or jokes. As Kelly’s guests informed her, even black actors and singers were forced to wear blackface in the venues where they were allowed to perform at all, to conceal their humanity from white audiences who did not wish to acknowledge it.

The flap involving Kelly roughly coincided with, but apparently was not directly related to, a more localized controversy in Davenport, Iowa. First-grade teacher Megan Luloff wore blackface as part of costume depicting a character from the film “Napoleon Dynamite.” The local school district launched an investigation, and a lawyer for the teacher said she later researched the history of blackface and would be “eternally sorry” for having worn it.

Luloff apparently is still employed, which may have something to do with the fact that teachers have stronger union protections than high-ranking public officials and multimillionaire TV journalists. Or perhaps the expectations of an elementary school teacher in Iowa are simply somewhat lower. In any case, I don’t know that the Davenport school district could have demonstrated that Luloff broke any specific rule against wearing blackface as part of a Halloween costume. But that does not mean she should not have known better.

If Kelly believed she might have been able to smooth over the incident by apologizing for her ignorance or callousness, Ertel at least understood that he had gone even farther beyond the pale. His costume in 2005 – a time when he had recently been appointed to his Seminole County position, after working in public relations (of all things!) – went well beyond ignorance, and even racism, to achieve outright cruelty. Who could joke about a miserable diaspora, made up of people who were living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers or worse while wondering if they would ever get back however much or little they once had in their largely impoverished, now-stricken city? If a 15-year-old had acted as Ertel did, I would not have been surprised, although I still would not excuse it. But a 35-year-old public official ought to have known better, even in 2005. Or 1985. Or 1965, for that matter.

I think there is a broader lesson in the fact that the 30-something Ertel did not know better, and that the photos taken of him that night stayed out of sight in the years between then and now. The lesson is that the things we say and do today will remain part of us tomorrow, and for many tomorrows to come. The boundaries of what is considered acceptable discourse may shift, but standards of good behavior are not so flexible. Respect, empathy, civility and compassion never go out of style. And the internet never forgets.

It’s understandable to have strong emotions, and it is reasonable to express them. Hypocrisy and insincerity deserve to be called out. Since we tend to move in social circles that believe as we do, we may not even receive immediate pushback if, for example, we use a compound word that will never appear in this blog to describe a president as having acted on Oedipal impulses. But I don’t think doing so will wear very well. The same is true when we toss around words like “Nazi” to describe someone whose opinions or actions evoke our strong disapproval. Or when we post pictures of ourselves doing things that are gratuitously dangerous, mean or otherwise stupid.

For people of high public or private ambition, especially, my old Wall Street Journal test still works pretty well. Will I be comfortable if I read about whatever I am saying or doing on the front page of The Wall Street Journal someday? If the answer is “no,” then I probably ought to say or do something else.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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