A Racial Reckoning for Democratic Leaders in VirginiaRoundup
tags: racism, political history, Ku Klux Klan, Blackface, Ralph Northam
Jelani Cobb has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2012, and became a staff writer in 2015. He writes frequently about race, politics, history, and culture. His most recent book is “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”
Among the lesser-recognized achievements of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s minstrelsy scandal is his deft ability to turn a rush to judgment into a rush in the right direction. When a photograph that appeared on Northam’s 1984 medical-school yearbook page surfaced last week, depicting a person in Ku Klux Klan robes standing next to a person in blackface, demands for the governor’s resignation came in rapid succession. The outrage, like arson, could be identified by its multiple points of origin. Progressives lamented that Northam had been a consensus candidate whom they had settled on, during the 2017 campaign, only after their preferred choice, Tom Perriello, a former U.S. representative, lost to him in the Democratic primary. If the photograph had emerged back then, they reasoned, it would have tilted the primary in a state where a fifth of the electorate is African-American. Conservatives, who in the Trump era seem to have installed spigots with hot and cold running indignation, seized on Northam as new evidence in their running argument that the Democrats are the real racists. That claim required great sums of temerity, given that the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2017, Ed Gillespie, ran an egregiously Trumpian campaign defined by nativism and a defense of the totems of the Confederacy. Donald Trump had tweeted that Gillespie “might even save our great statues/heritage!”
Others were drawn to more strategic—and darkly satirical—concerns. Northam’s resignation would result in Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, an African-American, being elevated to the governorship. The prospect of Virginia’s second black governor, after Douglas Wilder, coming to power as a result of his white predecessor’s being caught, however long after the fact, in blackface or a Klan hood seems like a lost scene from “Putney Swope.” That calculation became more vexing when allegations surfaced over the weekend that Fairfax had sexually assaulted a woman in 2004. (Fairfax has denied the charges, saying that the encounter was consensual.) Then, on Wednesday, Mark Herring, the Virginia Attorney General and the third in the line of succession to the governorship, confessed that he, too, had worn blackface, when he and some friends went to a party “dressed like rappers,” in 1980, when he was a nineteen-year-old college student. (Herring had previously called for Northam’s resignation.) Reckonings with history, both personal and societal, seem to be ricocheting across the Commonwealth of Virginia.