Virginia: Blackface and the Future of a Slave State

ralph-northam-yearbook.jpg

These are certainly strange times for the United States, as no doubt any of us might attest.

During the tenure of Barack Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, many of my friends and colleagues among the Democratic set were optimistic: finally, our President was a black man. Finally, the racist history of America was beginning to crack. We were making progress on healthcare, and ensuring greater access to higher quality of education. We were fighting violent extremism, and beginning to understand how to combat radical ideologies. Our geopolitical foes were on the defensive, as the Ukrainians built a revolution to throw off the yoke of Russian oppression.

Clearly, we were too optimistic.

As we slept, Republicans and billionaires forged a new base, hyper-capitalist, and rooted in notions of the supremacy of the self. Together, this “red wave” swept state legislatures across the United States, and while occasional issues would allude to the racist motivations of Republican voters, such as when Republicans began to question Barack Obama’s very citizenship, for the most part Republican leaders couldn’t have imagined this movement to have racist undertones; after all, if we all have equal access to the market, a naive assumption to be sure, then how can we be racist so long as we’re tearing down the roadblocks the State creates to Black success? That all changed with the election of Donald Trump. After the 2016 presidential elections, even Republicans who ardently believed that their voters were motivated
by such values as limited government, economic growth, and free trade were forced to reckon with the ugly truth of the party’s base: for all of the talk of economic insecurity among the professional pundit class which followed the election of Donald Trump, the truth is that many of the President’s voters were motivated by a fear of becoming a minority in a country to which they believed, believe, they are entitled, as its “rightful heirs.” Looking ahead, we realize that we are ill-equipped to handle this problem, so rooted in the history of our nation it is that we fought a bloody civil conflict over the very question of whether human beings could be owned as property.

So how does this relate to what is happening in Virginia today? Well, to get started, what is
happening here?

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If you haven’t been following along, it recently came to light that the yearbook of Ralph Northam, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, features a personally curated page which features a photo of a white person in blackface standing next to a person, presumably also white, wearing a full set of KKK robes, drinking beers at a party, as if to say, “just two good ol’ boys having a drink.” This is obviously deeply troubling. I’m sure in this space I do not need to expand, but to illustrate, I will: imagine if the photo featured an S.S. officer and the caricature of a Jew. The problem is that the photo, the image, the costumes, attempts to find humor in violent oppression. Now, Ralph Northam is not new to the political arena. The yearbook was published in 1984, meaning the photo is at least 35 years old. One would imagine that he would have a response to this, knowing that it was in existence, could be discovered, and that he could be
approached by those who found this image disturbing, to demand he account for it. What happened next shouldn’t shock you: he messed up. First, he suggested or admitted that he was in the photo, and apologized. The next day, amid almost immediate calls to resign from Democrats across the state, and those elected to the serve in Congress, including, and this is important, Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia Mark Herring, Northam said he wasn’t in the photo, and that he would not resign. This was February second. Now, in Virginia, we elect our Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General every four years. They are eligible to serve only a single term, per the Constitution of Virginia. If the Governor were to resign, then their Lieutenant Governor would take office and appoint a new Lieutenant Governor. Third in line, essentially and roughly, is the Attorney General.

The Lieutenant Governor of Virginia is Justin Fairfax, a lawyer who I had the pleasure of speaking with concerning information warfare and social media during his campaign. Given his background as an attorney, I’ll admit it freely: I wasn’t sure he would understand the issue, nor care. He was better informed than I expected. Justin Fairfax also happens to be black, so as the calls for Ralph Northam to resign come out from all corners, many were speculating Justin Fairfax could become governor, Virginia’s second black governor since Doug Wilder, who served the Commonwealth in Richmond from 1990 to 1994. But there was a snag: As the palpable anticipation that Virginia could have a new governor grew, on either the fifth or the sixth of February we found out that there was an allegation of sexual assault against Justin Fairfax, by a Dr. Vanessa Tyson, who claimed that Fairfax had forced her into oral sex at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in Boston.

Uh oh.

Democrats reeled as we considered the possibility that we would have to demand TWO of our top elected officials to resign for behavior inconsistent with our values, and that we might have to ask our Attorney General, Mark Herring, to step up and fill the gap. Fairfax’s response to this was thoughtful and well-considered: NBC reported that in a meeting on the sixth, Fairfax reportedly said, “fuck that bitch,” which his office and staff promptly denied.

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself: even if we assume that Governor Northam should resign because of his racist yearbook page, surely Justin Fairfax should not resign without evidence to back up the account? In the past, that may have been true, but in this, the era of #MeToo, many Democrats considered a single such allegation a disqualifier to be elected or hold office, and as such considered such an allegation worthy of demanding the Lieutenant Governor’s resignation. Also, remember how Mark Herring, the Attorney General, had called for Ralph Northam’s resignation? The next day he actually admitted that he also had appeared in blackface at a party, when he was 19, in an attempt to portray Kurtis Blow at a party where he and his friends dressed up as their favorite rap and hip hop artists. So now Virginia Democrats re in a position where our top two elected officials look imperiled, and our third in line has called for the resignation of the Governor over an incident of racism in the past, only for he
himself to reveal that he has his own such incident.

As if things weren’t bad enough, let’s fast forward. Our local unit had decided that the best course of action was to hold community listening sessions on the subject of racism and sexual assault, realizing fully that as a mostly white community, we aren’t particularly in the best position to decide how we should interpret Ralph Northam’s yearbook page or Mark Herring’s blackface admission. Certainly we believe sexual assault is immoral and wrong, and since we’re talking about trauma, we should hear from those who have been the victims of sexual assault, so that we might better understand their perspective as we look forward and make decisions as to how best to proceed. Members of our local grassroots community thought similarly, and organized a similar listening session a day after the first listening session held by the
Democratic Party, on the fifth and sixth respectively. On the sixth, I drove out to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington to attend the listening session organized by our community leaders and SURJ Northern Virginia, a grassroots group dedicated to organizing white Virginians in support of ethnic justice. I met up with a friend in the parking lot, and we walked in together, finding a pew near Bobby, a member of our community I’d met the night before at the Democratic Party’s listening session. My phone buzzed; a text! “There’s a second Fairfax allegation, and it is corroborated.” My head fell.

And that brings us to about where we are today. Virginia Democrats recognize that there is a problem of race relations and gender violence that will never be solved so long as we refuse to hold our elected officials accountable for their past racial transgressions, and sexual assault, no matter how long ago these actions occurred, and seek justice for historically marginalized communities. All three of the top elected officials in the Commonwealth of Virginia, elected Democrats, are embattled, their fates hanging in the balance as we try to sort through these complicated affairs, for which no state processes exist. It’s enough of a mess that the Washington Post published a handy flowchart for those interested in how the line of succession might work given assumptions about the spirit of the Virginia Constitution. At least one elected Democrat, Delegate Patrick Hope of Virginia’s 47th House District, of our state legislature, has
signaled his desire to draft articles of impeachment against Justin Fairfax. Democrats are warring among ourselves, trying to figure out a plan forward that holds our elected officials accountable, without handing over control of our state government to the Republican Party, whose policies some believe far worse for the black community and women, human beings who are going about their lives and expect their state government to work for them, than at best the missteps of a 19 year old, if the resignation of all three would throw control of the executive branch to the Republican-controlled state legislature.

Stay tuned, folks.

Supporting links:

[New York Times - 2/6/2019] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/us/politics/virginia-blackface-
mark-herring.htm
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