The Problem Isn't Virginia. The Problem—I Can't Believe I Have To Say This Again—Is America

Politics Features Ralph Northam
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The Problem Isn't Virginia. The Problem—I Can't Believe I Have To Say This Again—Is America

The last two-and-a-half dark centuries in Virginia politics has played out over the last week as a dark comedy. Here’s the rundown, in three acts.

Act One: Last Friday, a conservative website published a picture of two men at a party—one in blackface, the other in a full-blown Klan costume—found on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page. Northam admitted he was in the photo, but the next day he denied it. On Saturday he held a press conference where he stuck to the denial but added—in an idiotic attempt at self-exoneration—that at one point that year he had “darkened” his face for a Michael Jackson dance contest. He went on to boast that he won the contest because he could do the moonwalk, and when a reporter asked if he could still do it, Northam entertained the idea before his wife set him straight.

Democrats and Republicans alike clamored for his resignation, but as of this writing he’s shown no intention of stepping down.

Act Two: A few days after the conservative site posted the Northam photo, that same site published an allegation of sexual assault against Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, a Democrat and next in line for governor if (and hopefully when) Northam resigns. Before his accuser made a public statement, Fairfax, who is black, denied the allegation. The Washington Post had investigated the claim in early 2018 but chose not to run the story, explaining this week it made the call “in part because she had not told anyone what happened.” Like Northam, Fairfax said he wouldn’t step down, but suggested Northam’s camp was behind the leak.

On Wednesday the accuser—who we now know is Vanessa Tyson, a professor at Scripps College—came forward with a highly detailed and credible statement about the alleged assault, which dates to a night in a Boston hotel during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Tyson has hired the law firm that represented Dr. Christine Blasey Ford when she testified before Congress against then-Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Fairfax had reportedly courted that same firm, but has since turned to the firm that represented Kavanaugh, which Fairfax first retained last January to handle Tyson’s initial accusation.

Democrats and Republicans alike clamored for his resignation, but as of this writing he’s shown no intention of stepping down.

Act Three: On Wednesday morning, Virginia State Attorney General Mark Herring—a Democrat and next in line for governor should both Northam and Fairfax step down—met with the state legislature’s black caucus to discuss a possible photo of him in blackface. Later that morning Herring released a statement in which he apologized, at length, appearing genuinely contrite and ashamed, for wearing blackface to a party when he was 19.

Democrats and Republicans alike clamored for his resignation, but as of this writing he’s shown no intention of stepping down.

To make it all the more painful for Virginia Democrats, this all comes on the heels of remarkable electoral gains in the state. All three of these men were swept into office in 2017 thanks to the highest voter turnout for a Virginia governor election in twenty years. That same year (Virginia state elections are on off-years) Democrats flipped 15 Republican state seats and all but flattened the Republican 2-to-1 majority in the House of Delegates. In the 2018 midterms, Virginia voters flipped three Republican U.S. congressional seats and re-elected former Governor Tim Kaine in something of a landslide over Corey Stewart—himself a gutless racist and the only Virginia Republican official who refused to condemn the 2017 Nazi terrorist attack in Charlottesville.

“All the weak Republicans, they couldn’t apologize fast enough,” Stewart told the Washington Post. “They played right into the hands of the left wing. Those [Nazi] people have nothing to do with the Republican Party. There was no reason to apologize.” (Stewart had days earlier made multiple joint appearances at that rally with its organizer, Jason Kessler, who suggested white people adopt Nazi as a “term of endearment.”)

You see where this is going.

Virginia Democrats Are A Problem, Not The Problem

I was born and raised in Virginia, but though the TV lights that are now blanching my home state’s deeply racist roots shame me, this doesn’t surprise me. It shouldn’t surprise you, either. This disease isn’t isolated to Virginia Democrats, as many opportunistic, hypocritical and racist Republican dopes have claimed. These two older Democrats came of age when Virginia—the first state to receive slaves from Africa 400 years ago and the eventual capital of the Confederacy—was deep, deep red and still a bastion of white supremacy. Most of the state had no interest in acknowledging its own evils, let alone trying to shake them. This doesn’t absolve those guys, but if we want to better understand this moment and ourselves we must face that larger context. Look: Soul Man—a hit comedy starring Ralph Macchio as a young, privileged white student who scams Harvard’s affirmative action program through the rollicking ingenuity of blackface—came out in 1986, two years after Northam’s blackface photo was taken; we defeated the Nazis, as you might recall, about 72 years before Corey Stewart defended them.

The real problem was and still is with—as of course it is—America, and particularly but not entirely with the South. So let’s all acknowledge Northam and Herring’s past behavior is reprehensible and should end their careers, then let’s get at the heart of it.

What Exactly Is Racism?

Well of course we know what racism is. But our two political realities operate from different definitions. Liberals (in general) acknowledge a literally innumerable litany of words, actions, beliefs, institutions, systems, and histories qualify as racist, though to varying degrees. We also (in general) don’t distinguish between a racist Democrat and a racist Republican, as the response to Northam this week should make clear. The GOP, however, pretends the definition of “racism” doesn’t go much further than absurd or obvious extremes—slavery, blackface, lynching, the holocaust, etc—until suddenly a white girl doesn’t get into a flagship state university or black employment numbers go up. (Q for the White House: If black employment drops does that mean you’ll finally acknowledge Trump is a racist?) Or, as we also see today, until a Democrat engages in racist behavior and outrage becomes politically expedient (and a way to pretend to everyone and probably yourself that you’re not racist).

There are no degrees of racism in the GOP’s view, just “racist,” “not racist,” and “reverse racist.” And after all the debate about Northam and Herring, they’d probably even forgive Trump for using the N-word on an old Apprentice tape. He’s grown so much since 2006.

And I know this might come as a shock to you, but Republicans (a great many of them) don’t hold themselves to their own standards:

Further complicating things for Democrats is the fact that Republicans, upon one of their own party doing some incredibly racist shit, can’t stop pointing out that Democrats have the real racist history in the United States. It’s true on its face: Until the Civil Rights movement crested and Nixon developed his blatantly racist “southern strategy,” the Southern racists who now identify as Republican—people like, oh, say, the KKK, or Strom Thurmond, who changed his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican smack in the middle of 1964—identified as Democrats. This dates back to before the Civil War. To be clear: The parties aren’t the same today.

No? Here’s Republican political strategist Lee Atwater in a 1981 interview describing the southern strategy, designed purely to lure racist white Southern Democrats to the GOP:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Republicans gave post-Civil Rights racist Southern Democrats a gift, leveraging the abstract and relatively subjective nature of racism to render it invisible—and therefore ignorable and excusable—to those who wished to feel but not see it—or seen wearing it. (I lived for four years in rural Georgia. Black people knew where they were welcome and where they weren’t—no signs needed.) And in Atwater’s lap they learned to dogwhistle: You can’t be held accountable for what you mean if you don’t explicitly say it.

This talent for ignorance, lying, cynicism, and self-delusion has been a font of grief for liberal-minded Democrats ever since.

But How Bad Is Blackface?

That history explains exactly why Corey Stewart’s language gets a pass from the GOP while Northam and Herring’s photos don’t. When it comes to blackface, the truth can’t be parsed like a sentence: It’s visible, undeniable, and inexcusable. Anyone can see it and know what it is, instantly.

Well, maybe not. Blackface has a long history in U.S. entertainment industry, but it’s still around. It first became popular in the mid-1800s, when white actors would make their faces impossibly dark and exaggerate features of their lips and eyes to put on these awful minstrel shows, where they’d shuffle and dance about like a bunch of racist shitheads for racist shithead audiences because a long-running, one-note “black people are stupid” joke was funny to them. (Short-cut: Watch this.) Minstrel shows like these were popular for an unbelievably dumb number of decades, and they did as much to shape and define the worst African American stereotypes as probably anything in American entertainment.

But the important thing: Just like racism in America, blackface didn’t just magically stop at some arbitrary point, like the invention of color TV or something. And Americans didn’t just stop being racist after the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Civil War, or Reconstruction, or Tuskegee University or Duke Ellington or Jackie Robinson or Brown vs. Board of Education or Rosa Parks or the Civil Rights Act or MLK’s assassination or affirmative action programs or Hank Aaron or BET or the Color Purple or the Cosby Show or the first elected African American governor—Douglas Wilder—in 1990. In the state of Virginia. We didn’t stop after Barack Obama, either. And through these same years we saw white comedians such as Robert Downey Jr., Ralph Macchio, Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel, Jon Slattery, Sarah Silverman, Dan Ackroyd, Gene Wilder, and so many more at one time wear blackface as part of their act. They often satirize the heinous idiocy of blackface, but that’s problematic, too—the white privilege of laughing.

In other words, blackface is really, really fucked up, but America is also really, really fucked up. And we still don’t see either. Not even the visible one. This is why our shock at the Northam and Herring photos really matters: We shouldn’t be shocked. It’s fundamentally weird. Amnesiac. I mean, how ignorant of ourselves can we get?

But in all honesty, what’s worse: Wearing blackface at a party in the 80s or sticking up for Nazi terrorists who murdered a young woman in your state a year and a half ago? To me, the answer is obvious. But Corey Stewart wasn’t asked to withdraw. Now Virginia has to choose again.

Can Virginia Democrats Survive This Week?

It looks really, really bad, but Virginia Democrats might have one way out. It’s highly likely that within a few hours of Northam’s photo dropping, he, Fairfax, and Herring all knew the full score. Of the three, Herring is the only one who might be able to ride this out, and only if the Virginia black caucus makes a public display of forgiving and supporting him. And it might be in their interest to support Herring. There’s a major state election later this year, and this triple scandal threatens to erase all the gains of the last two years, setting progress in the state back who knows how long. Also, at some point we’re going to need to take this conversation beyond a couple Virginia Democrats, in the way the #metoo movement blew through political, societal, and sexual lines.

Because look: Though this disease might have sprung up in the South, it’s long been a pandemic. We know racism doesn’t stop arbitrarily just because time passes, and it’s not confined to geographical lines, either. Two of America’s most notoriously racist cities—Boston and Chicago—are in the north. As Charles Blow pointed out on CNN last night, even many abolitionists were also racists: They might help out of religious duty or a sense of fairness or basic humanity, but that doesn’t mean they actually treated or saw black people as equals.

No? Most of white America didn’t even really see blackface until now. The more opportunistic people among us still don’t see the Virginia scandals as anything other than a means to a political win, and most of those people probably don’t think it’s a big deal to begin with. Given what we know of Republicans in Virginia, though, I wonder if the GOP leadership is nervous someone will dig up a yearbook photo of the entire Republican caucus building a Confederate monument on the State Capitol lawn by the light of a burning cross.

The responsibility of what to do next extends to each one of us, but it starts with Virginia. As it should. Obviously racism doesn’t live between imaginary lines on a map, but trust me as a Virginian, there’s a reason Charlottesville was in Charlottesville.