In our fast-paced hell world, it seems like years ago that we discovered Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page contained a photo of a person in blackface and a person in a KKK hood. One of the strangest parts of the whole debacle is how apparently common it is for college yearbooks to contain racist images. After the Northam photo surfaced, it was found that Virginia Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. had edited a college yearbook in 1968 that included a bunch of racist photos as well.
Now, USA Today has published an investigation on the matter, surveying 900 yearbooks at 120 universities across the U.S. What they found shouldn’t be surprising: American college students in the ‘70s and ‘80s were extremely racist.
From USA Today:
At Cornell University in New York, three fraternity members are listed in the 1980 yearbook as “Ku,” “Klux” and “Klan.” For their 1971 yearbook picture, a dozen University of Virginia fraternity members, some armed, wore dark cloaks and hoods while peering up at a lynched mannequin in blackface. In one of the most striking images – from the 1981 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign yearbook – a black man is smiling and holding a beer while posing with three people in full KKK regalia. [...]
The yearbooks in the USA TODAY Network examination also show students saluting in Nazi uniforms on Halloween or wearing orange paint and a headdress to depict a stereotype of a Native American on game day. There are “slave sale” fundraisers that auctioned off young women, “plantation parties” and a “sharecroppers ball.” One picture shows a swastika banner hung up on what appears to be a dormitory wall.
But the vast majority of the offensive material show racist imagery, such as students in blackface or KKK robes, sometimes just pages away or even alongside images of minority students and university leaders.
Black alumni who went to college in this era say there wasn’t much they felt could be done about the open displays of racism they saw on campus. Cassandra Thomas, a black woman who went to University of Texas in the ‘70s, says she remembers a yearbook page that featured a student wearing a KKK hood and holding a Confederate flag.
“It was about keeping your head down,” Thomas told USA Today. “We were trying to get our degree and get out with the least amount of trouble.”
Even a fellow USA today journalist got caught up in this new trove of vintage racism. In 1989, Nicole Carroll was an editor at the Arizona State University yearbook that included a photo of two white men in blackface, dressed as Mike Tyson and Robin Givens at a party. Carroll wrote a piece apologizing for her involvement.
“I was shocked when a colleague told me of my role in publishing a racist and hurtful photo in my college yearbook,” Carroll said in a statement. “I am truly sorry for the harm my ignorance caused then, and the hurt it will cause now, 30 years later.”
Andre M. Perry, a black Brookings Institute fellow who looked at his own yearbooks from University of Maryland, told USA Today that racism in yearbooks is about social acceptance.
“The way to fit in, sadly, is to make fun of black people,” Perry said. “It’s a unifying act. It’s sad but racism pulls people, particularly white people, together.”
Some people USA Today spoke to still don’t understand the ramifications of their actions in college. Steve LaCarter, who is now 64, dressed in blackface alongside friends at a party at University of South Carolina in 1976.
“I don’t feel like I harmed anybody,” he told USA Today. “There were no black people in the room watching that.”
Upon learning the photo was published in the yearbook, LaCarter expressed some regret.
“I can see that, for black people, even in the ‘70s, seeing that in the University of South Carolina yearbook, that’s not right,” he told USA Today. “But I didn’t think about that. I didn’t think about it.”
USA Today reached out to every college and fraternity whose yearbook they reviewed. Many condemned the images and said the culture has changed, but admitted that racism was a widespread phenomenon.
“Many of these photos are extremely offensive and painful to view,” Jim Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, told USA Today in a statement. “But while the photos themselves are shocking, their existence is not.”