This week an investigation determined that the identity of the individuals in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan outfit in Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook was inconclusive. But we know that such an offensive photo appeared. Moreover, thanks to a recent search of 900 yearbooks from 120 colleges across the country in the 1970s and 1980s by USA Today, we also know that “racist imagery” like the one on Northam’s page “appeared on full, blatant display in dozens of the glossy publications.”
Although photos of students in blackface do not appear to be rampant in yearbooks today, racism is finding other ways to insert itself into the pages of these cherished school annuals. A Chicago high school stopped distributing its 2018-2019 yearbook after being alerted to 18 photos in which students made an upside-down OK sign, a popular gesture among white supremacist groups. The school decided to remove the photos and reprint the 1,750 yearbooks at an additional cost of $53,794, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
A quote from Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda, has sparked controversy at two different high schools this year. At a Wisconsin high school, the quote, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed,” which was printed with an incorrect attribution to Hitler, prompted the school to no longer allow seniors to submit a quote with their photo, according to the Green Bay Press Gazette. At another high school in Illinois, the same Nazi quote (which appeared in the yearbook with an anonymous attribution) along with some other reportedly offensive but unidentified quote made the school stop distribution, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Some suggest the possibility that the Chicago students intended the gesture as part of an innocent circle game. But given the recent history of this gesture and the fact that the students were posing, that seems highly unlikely. Some also note that the Goebbels quotation itself is not necessarily offensive; the problem is that it comes from Goebbels. While there may be nothing wrong with discussing this quote in the right context, choosing a Nazi maxim to accompany a yearbook photo is alarming.
Racism has, of course, existed before Donald Trump took office and it will persist after he leaves. But when the President of the United States uses his bully pulpit to utter racist comments, promote anti-Semitic tropes, and offer comfort to white supremacists, he inspires others to mimic his hateful and callous ways. These recent yearbook controversies are further reminders that Trump is not the role model America has come to expect in our leader.