Mary Poppins, Racist

You know, there is nothing good about racism. Of course. But, we seem to have become lynching parties whenever the least evidence of racism rears its ugly head. The new Mary Poppins movie has been attacked because it supposedly revives a racist portion of the famous Julie Andrews version. In the original movie, Mary Poppins dons a bit of black on her face when she dances with the chimney sweeps. I have always assumed that was soot from chimneys. Chimney sweeps, after all, probably accumulate a good bit of soot when sweeping out nineteenth century chimneys.

But, apparently I was wrong. A professor wrote an opinion piece, published by the New York Times which asserts that  Mary Poppins donned blackface. See USA Today article here. Those of us who regularly seek to prove actual racism in court cringe. The very start of showing racism requires a showing that there is no other explanation for the racist act other than racism. Yet, here is Ms. Poppins dancing with chimney sweeps. Obviously, she might have soot on her face due to chimneys, not due to mocking black persons.

Gov. Northam provides an additional example. Someone appeared in some vile pictures. But, until we know the rest of the story, we do not know if it was racism or not. It is not likely, but possible that someone was mocking a Klansman, not admiring a Klansman. It is possible, perhaps likely that Gov. Northam was donning blackface to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest. He says he did. Until we hear why the man was wearing the blackface, we do not know … why he was wearing blackface. I think some folks assume wearing blackface means mocking black persons. That does seem a likely explanation, but until we hear some more definitive proof, other explanations remain viable.

Liam Neeson has recently been accused of being racist when he recounted the story of his reaction when a close female friend was raped by a black man 40 years ago. The actor went roaming the streets for a week with a crowbar hoping to get into a fight with a “black bastard.” Neeson hoped, it seems, some evil black man would reveal himself by starting a fight. Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts suggested he was racist for asking his friend 40 years ago the man’s skin color. No, he responded, he asked other questions about the rapist, other than just his skin color. See CNN news report.

Racists are just everywhere, some folks believe. But, those apparent racist actions are the beginning of the conversation, not the end. We need more information. Like Northam, Poppins, and now Neeson, we must first ask for that alternative explanation for what otherwise appears to be a racist act.

That alternative explanation is the heart of every discrimination case. Will it hold water, or not? We need more information. Otherwise, we risk making it so easy to show discrimination in the public arena, that no one will believe actual racism in the court arena.

In 1700 to about 1750, the English authorities offered bounties for Catholic priests and bishops. Bishops were flat against the law. There could be no Catholic bishop in Ireland. Regarding priests, the law was that if they violated any of the many restrictions on priests, then they could be arrested and punished. The English authorities offered 25£ for priests and 50£ for a bishop. Those were princely sums in those days. Persons known as priest-hunters became well-known. The priest-hunter would have to travel to Dublin to collect his bounty. Some priest-hunters became well known.

Toward the end of the priest bounties, the Catholic parishioners reached a point where if they would see one of the well-known priest-hunters on the streets of Dublin, one would shout, “There’s a priest-hunter!” Instantly, a crowd would form. The hunter became the hunted. He had to sprint for his very life. Crowds of angry Catholics would spring after the vile priest hunter.

We have become that crowd on the streets of Dublin. Someone shouts, “There’s a racist!” and instantly, a crowd of pursuers forms. But, unlike the priest-hunters, the racist has not identified himself by collecting a bounty from the Dublin authorities. We think the person is a racist. We do not know the person is a racist.

I am glad racism has incurred the opprobrium it deserves. But, a racist is just not that apparent. Proving racism is complicated and it should probably remain complicated.

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