Public Opinion

Poll: Only 58 percent of Americans oppose blackface

Feb 7 '19
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook is displayed. The page includes a picture, at right, of a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood next to different pictures of the governor. (Eastern Virginia Medical School/AP)

The roiling blackface scandal in Virginia continues. It not only includes Gov. Ralph Northam (D) but now also Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who says he dressed in blackface at a college party. The scandal has put renewed focus on how this racist depiction of African Americans has endured well past the heyday of minstrelsy.

Now, a new poll shows why blackface endures: Only a slim majority of Americans condemn it. And there is a vast gulf between Democrats and Republicans.

The poll, conducted Saturday through Tuesday by the firm YouGov, asked respondents: “Is it acceptable or unacceptable for a White person to wear blackface make up?” Although 58 percent said “unacceptable,” 16 percent said “acceptable” and 26 percent said that they were not sure. In other words, 42 percent of Americans either endorse blackface or do not have a clear opinion on it.

Perhaps, though, this finding isn’t that surprising. Earlier YouGov polls also revealed tolerance for blackface. A 2013 poll found 43 percent said it was acceptable for white people to wear blackface to dress up as a black person for Halloween. Only 37 percent opposed this. A 2015 poll found slightly more support for blackface costumes: 47 percent said it was acceptable.

There is a predictable racial division in opinion. In this 2019 poll, 73 percent of blacks said blackface was unacceptable, compared to 57 percent of whites.

But the partisan divide is even bigger:

The vast majority of Democrats (81 percent) say blackface is unacceptable. But only 50 percent of independents and 44 percent of Republicans said this. The remaining Republican respondents were evenly divided between accepting blackface (29 percent) and uncertainty (27 percent).

These results show why Democrats’ condemnation of Northam has been so prevalent — and arguably quicker and more unified than Republican condemnation of the racial provocations of Republican leaders such as Rep. Steve King (Iowa). The Democratic base is just less tolerant of acts of racism.

In fact, in this poll, it is Democrats who were more likely to say Northam should resign, even though Northam is a Democrat. The poll asked: “Do you think Virginia Governor Ralph Northam should or should not resign over allegedly appearing in a racist yearbook photo showing one person dressed in blackface and another in a KKK white hood and robes?” In response, 55 percent of Democrats said he should resign, while 22 percent said he should not and 23 percent were not sure. By contrast, 35 percent of Republicans said he should resign and 41 percent said he should not.

It remains unclear what Northam will do. But the poll is clear: Even plainly racist depictions of blacks — much like plainly racist epithets — are far from universally condemned. Whether Americans do condemn racism depends not only on their own race, but also on their party affiliation.