Beyond College Campuses And Public Scandals, A Racist Tradition Lingers
Mr. Kuhn apologized publicly shortly after the performance after meeting with the N.A.A.C.P., but he sounded a defiant note this week. “There was no insult intended,” he said, adding: “You’ve got to stop this P.C. nonsense, where if I don’t say something perfectly correct, people just get disjointed.”
Thomas Venker, 70, a retired lawyer who is white, was a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at Georgia State University in Atlanta in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He said the fraternity in those days held a yearly “Soul Review” rush party that featured white members in blackface pretending to be groups like the Temptations and the Four Tops.
“This was because we loved these entertainers,” he said. “The black fraternities would look at our photo album book and laugh at our pictures, and thought it was funny that we would do that, and loved it.”
But in 2004, Mr. Venker’s old fraternity prompted outrage on campus when two of its members showed up in blackface to the “Straight Outta Compton” party, the same event that pained Ms. Yeboah and many other black students. The fraternity was temporarily suspended from campus.
Mr. Venker filed a federal lawsuit on the fraternity’s behalf, and eventually an arrangement was reached with the Black Student Alliance, of which Ms. Yeboah was a member, and which had also been suspended after promulgating a flier associating the fraternity with the Klan.
All these years later, Mr. Venker still defends the 2004 episode much like he does the “Soul Review” parties. These were homages to black performers, he says, and “totally innocent.”
Eric Lott, an expert on blackface minstrelsy and a cultural historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who is white, called the practice “indefensible,” given its roots in dehumanizing attitudes “rooted in the traffic in black bodies and slavery.”
And yet, despite the pain and the punishment, some white people seem inescapably drawn to it. “It’s just one of the ways, theatrically and in everyday life, that white Americans appear to handle their relationship to the color line,” Dr. Lott said. “And I’m not sure how you deal with that.”