In February of this year, the story of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s alleged participation in a photograph featuring a person in blackface made national headlines, and the calls for his immediate resignation arrived soon after. It is now April, and Northam is still the governor of Virginia.
At first, Northam admitted to his participation in a public statement that has since become infamous:
“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”
However, in only a few days’ time, and under the weight of intense public ridicule, the Governor retracted his admission, instead opting for a “we’re not really sure who those people are in that picture” approach.
The nation scoffed.
When that diversion failed, and it was later found that Northam’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, was also photographed in blackface, the administration was plunged into chaos. The possibility of Northam’s resignation became so apparent that Virginians began to look into possible successors.
That same week, the man next in line to the governorship, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, was accused of sexual assault by former colleague Vanessa Tyson and rape by Meredith Watson, a classmate from Duke University. After him, the similarly embattled Attorney General would become Governor if the other two simultaneously resigned.
I remember that friends would ask me about my thoughts on the situation as I have been a resident of Virginia for a few years now and before that, it was a second home to me as I was growing up. My answer: I am disappointed but not surprised.
The conduct of the Lt. Governor leaves little to be discussed. One of the most amazing feats of progress in the last few years has been America’s realization of the harm and intolerability of sexual assault, and the fact that now those affected are feeling more empowered to expose their abusers. If the allegations against Fairfax are true, he is unfit to serve The Commonwealth.
As for the blackface scandals of the Governor and Attorney General, Virginia has had its fair share of race-related controversies and hardships as far as southern states go. I’ve personally had the privilege of speaking to Virginians who lived through the Jim Crow era, and they remember a time when neighbors and fellow Americans treated one another like outsiders -- like the enemy.
The proposal that the people who participated in such blatant acts of bigotry and ignorance were somehow a “product of the time” is absurd. Blackface was never an innocent joke. It was a tool used by racists to perpetuate an image of black Americans as helpless and stupid, which was propagated in American media well into the mid-20th century.
Regardless of the context, a white person who artificially darkens his face to imitate a black man contributes to the long history of mockery on the part of a racist subculture.
Both men admitted to wearing blackface as adults. Governor Northam admitted to using it while he was a student in medical school. These were not kids who were clueless about the ramifications of face makeup; they were adults who did not care to consider the painful history behind their actions.
Now, Governor Northam is going on a “reconciliation tour” of the state in an attempt to somehow rectify this mistake, but, more importantly, to stay in office. About one in five Virginians are Black or African-American, which is far more than the national average of about 13 percent.
If Northam did not care about the particular history of that community before, I doubt that he does now. The only difference is that he’s been caught.
I’m not surprised that any of these three men are still in office. If they had all resigned, the Republican Assembly Speaker would have become governor, and Northam decided that maintaining party power was more important than the integrity of the state government and its respect for the people of the state.
I hope the nation learns from Virginia. America has come a long way from the days of Jim Crow, but unless we are loud when we rebuke those who insult our neighbors, friends and colleagues on account of their race, those perpetrators of the old ways will stay comfortably in power.