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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox condemned a video circulating on social media Tuesday that depicts what appears to be teens wearing blackface and dressed as inmates, accompanied by at least one white person wearing a police costume.
"We strongly condemn racism in all its forms and we call on every Utahn to reject such offensive stereotypes, slurs and attitudes," the governor said in a statement. "We must do better."
The video was filmed in a Walmart in Cedar City on Halloween, according to Cedar City Police Sgt. Justin Ludlow, who told the Deseret News the department was contacted by someone who witnessed the incident, and it subsequently launched an investigation.
Cedar City police did not respond to the incident, but are working with resource officers at local schools to identify the people in the video.
The resource officers will investigate the video, Ludlow said, adding that unless there was a physical assault or verbal threat, the people in the video did not do anything illegal.
In a separate statement, the department said "Cedar City Police Department and Cedar City officials do not condone this type of activity."
The Iron County School District is also investigating the incident. It said in a statement it was "taking this matter seriously" and "will take appropriate action once that investigation is complete."
"Based on the information we have obtained, preliminary findings indicate the individuals in blackface are not students enrolled in Iron County schools," the statement reads. "Our district and schools promote inclusiveness and acceptance and denounce all forms of discrimination and racism whether those actions are on campus or off campus, in person or online."
Jeanetta Williams, the president of the NAACP Salt Lake City chapter, said Tuesday that she spoke with Cedar City police — and that they, with the Iron County School District, had identified everyone in the video as students enrolled in Iron County schools, she said. That information has yet to be corroborated with officials.
The video was initially uploaded to a private TikTok account before being widely distributed on various social media platforms. It shows three young people with striped inmate costumes wearing blackface, who when approached by a woman filming, laugh off her concerns.
"Well, if you put it that way," says the woman dressed as a police officer at the beginning of the video.
"Do you guys understand the consequences of what you've just done?" a woman asks. "You guys are never going to get into a college, you guys are not going to get any scholarships, because this is a hate crime."
"We all dropped out of high school, it's OK," responds one of the teens, not wearing a costume, to the tune of laughter from the teens wearing blackface.
"I still don't think it's appropriate for you guys to be doing this. ... It's really not funny," the woman responds.
Walmart responded with a statement Tuesday, telling the Deseret News that once store representatives were made aware of the teens in blackface, employees "immediately instructed them to leave the property."
"We don't tolerate discrimination or demeaning behavior of any kind and are incredibly disappointed by what is shown in this video," the company said.
The video went viral within hours, prompting widespread condemnation and a wave of rumors — one of them being the teens in the video attended Cedar Valley High School in Eagle Mountain. That's not true, according to the Alpine School District.
Social media accounts associated with Cedar Valley were harassed, as were individual students, according to a spokesperson for Alpine School District who told the Deseret News the district "denounces racism in any form."
"Public comments on TikTok incorrectly named a few Cedar Valley High School students and their families as participants," the statement reads. "After an investigation in cooperation with the Utah County Sheriff's Office, we can confirm that this information is false. Cedar Valley High School students were not involved in the video. Additionally, we are deeply concerned that some of our students have been targeted with hateful and slanderous comments and threats."
Southern Utah University, located in Cedar City, also said in a statement that none of the people in the video had been identified as students at the school.
Williams with the NAACP said the video shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what blackface is — one that education could solve. But she said the resistance to reforming Utah's history textbooks, often mislabeling the effort as critical race theory, or CRT, is a roadblock.
In 2021, for instance, the Iron County Commission passed a resolution opposing CRT being taught in public schools. The resolution had no teeth, but Williams said it could create the kind of culture that resulted in Tuesday's video.
"That could have a huge bearing on the mentality of those students," she said. "It's not being taught in schools, but folks have the misconception that it is ... then all of a sudden you get kids in the video that happened last night."
"There's nothing funny about it," she said referring to the teens in the video laughing when confronted by the woman recording them. "The parents should not have allowed them to go out of the house like they did ... I'm sure when the police chief and the school district found out who each one of them were and made contact with the parents, I don't think they thought it was funny then."
Williams pointed to the long history of blackface in the U.S., used as a tool to characterize Black people as cowardly, lazy, ignorant sexual deviants who steal and break the law. One of the most egregious examples of blackface, she said, was "The Birth of a Nation," a movie released in 1915 and shown at the White House during President Woodrow Wilson's tenure.
"They've always depicted the person in blackface as ignorant, as uneducated, as someone to make fun of," Williams said.