Column: MAGA hats and blackface are different forms of expression, but they share a certain unfortunate DNA


Two potent racial symbols — MAGA hats and blackface — have been in the news. They may not appear related at first blush, but they belong on a political continuum that ranges from racial provocation to outright racism. They share DNA.

Wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat is not necessarily an overt expression of racism.

But if you wear one, it’s a pretty good indication that you share, admire or appreciate President Trump’s racist views about Mexicans, Muslims and border walls.

That hat stirs strong emotions. It is meant to.

I know a Democratic mom in Orange County who asked her teenage son’s friend to take his MAGA hat off in her house. On his way out, the kid yanked up her Katie Porter-for-Congress lawn sign, which ended the boys’ friendship.


Last week, a biracial restaurant owner in San Mateo tweeted that he regarded the hats as no different than “a swastika, white hood, or any other symbol of intolerance and hate.”

“It hasn’t happened yet,” wrote J. Kenji López-Alt, “but if you come into my restaurant wearing a MAGA cap, you aren’t getting served.”

He quickly — and rightly — apologized after he was slammed for intolerance. You can reserve the right to refuse service to anyone, but if you choose your patrons based on their politics, you deserve to go under.

(If I owned a restaurant, I wouldn’t toss you out if you wore a MAGA hat to dinner, although I do think hats at the table are extremely rude.)

When Nick Sandmann, a Kentucky high school student, wore a MAGA hat as he engaged in what appeared to be a staring contest with Nathan Phillips, a Native American man, the image came across as disrespectful at best, and racist at worst. The resulting analysis of the event has taken on a Rorschach-like quality: You see what you want to see. But without that hat, the story would not have blown up.

MAGA hats simply don’t mean anything outside their implicit political message: The past was better because the country was whiter.

I look forward to the day they are consigned to the same historical fate as Confederate flags.


Even then, they will surely still have their fans.


Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, gestures as his wife, Pam, listens during a press conference Feb. 2.
(Steve Helber / AP)

Whether white people who blacken their faces for fun know it or not, the practice is rooted in minstrelsy and the mockery of blacks by whites. Like the MAGA hat, it is an expression of white supremacy.

The photo that surfaced last week from Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page in medical school was bad enough: a white man in blackface standing next to a (presumably) white man in a Ku Klux Klan white robe and pointed hood.

The only thing he had going for himself was that he did not try to defend the photo.

“That photo and the racist and offensive attitudes it represents does not reflect that person I am today, or the way I have conducted myself as a soldier, a doctor and a public servant,” Northam said in a video message to his constituents on Friday. “I am deeply sorry.”

It really doesn’t matter that he later decided he couldn’t possibly have been one of the two figures in the photo. The damage was done.


At his Saturday news conference, he admitted having once blackened his face for a Michael Jackson dance contest, saying, “You cannot get shoe polish off.” He seemed poised to moonwalk, until his wife stopped him. The entire performance was an exercise in historical, political and personal cluelessness.

“Since he loves Michael,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC, “he should go back to the mansion and play ‘Beat It’ and start packing.”

Seems like his fellow Virginians agree.


The lesson — that blackface is never funny, never acceptable — is one that white Americans seem destined to have to learn over and over again.

Twenty-five years ago, “Cheers” actor Ted Danson donned blackface and performed a profane comedy routine (he used the N-word more than a dozen times) at the New York Friars Club roast of his then-girlfriend, Whoopi Goldberg.


His face paint included oversized white lips. The negative reaction was swift.

Goldberg, who helped him conceive the bit, was among the very few who rose to his defense. “It took a whole lot of courage to come out in blackface in front of 3,000 people,” she said. “I don’t care if you didn’t like it. I did.”

Twenty years later, the white actress Julianne Hough was blasted for darkening her face when she dressed up as Uzo Aduba’s character “Crazy Eyes” from “Orange is the New Black.”

She was immediately called out and apologized.

“It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way,” Hough said. “I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize.”

Aduba’s response was kind: “I think maybe it was an unfortunate event, but she apologized and I feel like we can all move on.”

I wish we could move on.

Last fall, TV host Megyn Kelly lost her job after insisting it used to be OK to wear blackface on Halloween.

“Back when I was a kid, that was OK just as long as you were dressing as a character,” Kelly said. “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending by being normal people.”


You have to live deep inside a cosseted world of white privilege to think of blackface as “normal.”

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT