A week ago, I posted here supporting VA Gov Ralph Northam, comparing him favorably to the late Robert C. Byrd of WV. A day later I joined the call for him to resign after his bizarre press conference that has still left unpleasant unresolved issues such as who put that awful photo in his yearbook and why. Since then much else has come forth, and this continues. In any case it looks like Northam may hang in for at least awhile, although the situation is complicated and constantly changing, to put it mildly. What I intend to add in this post beyond the latest news is a combination of inside local information as well as, hopefully, a deeper historical perspective.
Last morning’s (Friday, 2/8), Washington Post top headline was that Northam would not resign soon, and late this afternoon I as an employee of the Commonwealth of VA received an email message saying he hoped we would all support him continuing to lead the state, while carefully not being too out there too much on that he would stay in office for his full term.
One reason why he was not going to resign immediately, even without the recent collapse of his most immediate successors, is that until Feb. 23 the VA legislature is debating a serious budget issue. The Trump tax law has resulted in a revenue windfall for Virginia. This involves technical details I know but will not bore any readers with this. So, there is an ongoing debate in the VA legislature on what to do with this extra money, with the barely majority GOP in the legislature saying give it all to upper middle-income persons, while Northam and the Dems have proposed giving half of it to lower income people while using the other half to fund various state initiatives. If this current scandal had not appeared, I think Northam would have gotten an agreement not too far from what he wanted. Now in his weakened state, the ultimate compromise will be closer to the GOP version.
For any not following the news since a week ago, both of Northam’s immediate successors have themselves come under unpleasant scrutiny. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has now been seriously accused of two sexual assaults. When accused of the first he denied it and hired an attorney. The second accusation coming a few hours ago is of rape, and while earlier many were supporting him to replace Northam, this now seems to have become unlikely. I note that I never liked Fairfax. I know all these people personally, and the African American I would like to see as governor is Levar Stoney, currently Mayor of Richmond and a grad of JMU where I teach.
And now the second in line to the governorship of VA, assuming that both Northam and Fairfax resign (neither of which at this point has so far remotely come close to doing so), is Attorney General Mark Herring, now in his second term, having stepped aside from running for Lt Gov to let the now seriously damaged J. Fairfax run for that. Last Thursday AG Herring revealed that he also had performed in blackface in 1980 at UVa at age 19.
If Northam, Fairfax, and Herring all resign or forced out of office, then the acting governor will be the Speaker of the House, Kirk Cox, not only a Republican, but one how just gave an impassioned anti-abortion speech full of ridiculously irrelevant Biblical passages, given that there is nothing in the Bible that directly forbids abortion.
As it is, it appears that all of this blew up because Northam is a pediatric neurologist, who only recently became a politician. So when Dems in the VA legislature attempted to loosen rules on late abortions, Dr. Northam got into rare and weird cases I was not aware of involving treatment of deformed fetuses and whether one born should be “revived.” Personally, I do not know how to deal with such extremely rare cases, although basically siding with mothers and their physicians. But Republicans cherry picking this overly specific discussion by Dr. Northam turned it into “infanticide,” with Trump making this charge in his SOTU.
More immediately and seriously the rumor I have heard is that what triggered the revelation of that embarrassing photo in Northam’s yearbook came as a result of his professional testimony about this odd and rare case, which his opponents seized on, blocking any expansion of abortion rights in VA and providing fodder for Trump’s ranting in his SOTU about “infanticide,” a false charge.
But back in VA, reportedly a roommate from med school of Northam got ticked off by this medical testimony by Northam, and then leaked the story to whatever media about the yearbook photos. This set off the call that he should resign, leading us to the now unacceptable (although I read, he has hired lawyers, puke), and then the now damaged AG Herring. While so far Speaker Cox is “clean,” aside from being a far-right winger, the GOP majority leader of the state senate, Norman Tennant, has been accused of a half century ago being an editor of a yearbook containing racist photos.
I have lived in VA for 42 years and have deep south ancestry including VA. But this matter has made me realize that for all my deep family background going back to the 1600s in VA, I was and am a “damned yankee” to all those born and raised here. My parents were born and raised in Deep South northern Florida, and when young I spent serious time there. This made me think I knew the South, but I now know that ultimately I was an outsider, especially given that I went not only to high school in liberal/progressive Madison, Wisconsin, where the state capitol building has a museum for the Grand Army of the Republic, the ultimate hard core of the northern Union that won the Civil War (“War of Northern Aggression according to a cousin of my father that my wife from USSR/Russia met in 1987).
So, a big revelation to me in the last week is how widespread this “blackfacing” and related racist manifestations were even into recent times. The yearbook where Northam’s photo appeared (Eastern Medical School of Virginia) had racist photos as recently as 2013, when the then dean just shut down the yearbooks. I have never seen a black faced performance, but now old very liberal and local friends have been surfacing with old past incidents of racist conduct. This sort of resembles post-WW II France, where many collaborated with the Nazi Vichy regime, but then later joined the anti-Nazi Resistance. Eventually this became a matter of when one turned from one side to the other, and good liberal close friends have been essentially playing postwar French fessing up to just exactly when they stopped using the “n-word,” much less blackfacing.
The deeper history of all this is in Virginia 400 hundred years ago in 1619 when on the one hand the oldest continuing English-speaking legislative body in North America was founded, the same one (with some modifications over the centuries), that I noted above is trying to resolve the Trump tax “reform” with VA tax law. The other is the first arrival in what is now the USA of African slaves. Needless to say, this latter matter is on many minds and relevant to this current controversy.
To make things even worse, it was in Virginia in 1705 that the crucial laws were passed fully establishing that slavery was to be of people of African descent and that those people could not marry anyone of European descent. So since then in 1860 the state had more slaves than any other, its capitol became the that of the Confederate States of America, with half the battles of the succeeding Civil War (or “War of Northern Aggression” according to some of my cousins of earlier generations), and then its state capital became the capital of the Confederacy. This led to half the battles of the Civil War being fought in Virginia.
More recently we had the Byrd Machine supporting resistance against racial integration of public schools after Brown vs Board of Education in 1954. Eventually this was all over come. But in the private places, including many frats on many campuses until very recently, racist practices such as “blackfacing” persisted. And although the worst violence came from outsiders, in Charlottesville in August, 2017, we saw overt racist violence in Virginia.
Eventually this has become personal. With all these revelations, very liberal friends of mine have now outed themselves as having been varying degrees of racist in the past. I now realize that while I have deep southern ancestry including high officers in the Confederate army, I was born and raised in the North. I did not see all this stuff, and I did not personally have to go through this process of personally ‘deracializing’ myself, which I now realize my deep southern parents went through, my father moving from deep south racist Democratic Party affiliation when he went to math grad school in Princeton in the 30s to being a Republican, When he took us in 1963 to uber-progressive Madison, Wisconsin, well, no wonder I did not do blackface.
A final bottom line is that Gov. Northam’s still unresolved yearbook photo has the absurd idea of possibility of a racial reconciliation to all this. I do not know why he continues to claim no knowledge of the origin or handling of this old photo of black faced white person standing next to someone wearing a KKK hooded outfit that is in his medical school yearbook. But while whatever relation it had to Gov. Northam personally, it could be interpreted in its superficial stupidity as also showing a possible racial reconciliation for the long and troubled racial history of Virginia. This now shocking photo shows a black faced man standing peacefully next to somebody wearing a KKK outfit. While indeed the obvious interpretation of those photo supports racism, another interpretation is of harmony among the races, even including the old southern racists of the KKK.
Observing old Virginia friends of mine now confessing their past racist behavior and views, it seems that for them this looks sort of like the post-WW II French. After the war they were supposedly all anti-Nazi and supporters of the anti-Nazi Resistance. But, of course, many did work for the pro-Nazi Vichy regime after the German conquest of France in 1940. But then, as the Allies increased their obviously ultimate victory over that regime, more and more former collaborators with the Vichy regime would quit and join the Resistance. Eventually this game became a matter of timing one’s switch from working for a ruling Vichy to an anti-Vichy/Nazi Resistance.
Several of my good friends now confessing their past racist conduct have put it in these terms: it has become a matter of timing, just when did one finally stop doing these bad old behaviors? Reportedly Ralph Northam only learned two years ago that “blackfacing” was not socially acceptable. Whatever comes out of the current crisis in Virginia, hopefully in the future we shall have better informed and more deeply understanding leaders in Virginia and more broadly.
Addendum: 2:30 PM, 2/9/19: The VA legislature has reportedly come to an agreement on its budget dispute. Apparently, the agreement tilts strongly towards what the GOP members favored due to the weakness of the Dems arising from these scandals involving their elected leaders in the state. Not surprising.