Virginia’s Racist Past Is Present

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring. Photo: Pete Marovich/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The narrative that we are encouraged to accept in the United States about white people’s youthful dalliances with racism is as follows: That was then, this is now, and I have changed.

And is that so unreasonable? Surely wearing blackface at a college party does not predict an eternity of racist behavior. Nor does it necessarily preclude future repentance, or even an eventual commitment to anti-racism.

It is this narrative that Ralph Northam and Mark Herring want Americans to accept about them. On Wednesday, Herring — the Democratic attorney general of Virginia — admitted to attending a party almost 40 years ago wearing what can be best described as blackface. “In 1980, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college, some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time,” Herring wrote in a statement. “[Because] of our ignorance and glib attitudes … we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”

This revelation would be less explosive (if we had even heard it at all) had not Northam, the state’s Democratic governor, first admitted to and then denied appearing in a 1984 medical-school yearbook photo that depicted a man wearing blackface standing next to a man in Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam did admit he wore blackface on a separate occasion as part of a dance contest the same year, where he dressed as Michael Jackson. (His wife dissuaded him from demonstrating his “moonwalk” at the press conference.) Calls for Northam to resign have gone unheeded since the news broke on Friday, no doubt partially because his supporters fear the fallout: Should the governor leave his post, followed by Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax — who faces sexual-assault accusations from 2004 — and then Herring, the top three officials in the gubernatorial line of succession would be gone, leaving Kirk Cox, the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates, to govern the state.

“I imagine we’re not praying enough,” delegate Lamont Bagby, a Virginia Democrat, told the Washington Post of the party’s predicament.

People grow up, of course. There is little doubt that Northam and Herring are not the same men today that they were in the early 1980s. Redemption is well within reach. In fact, black Virginians are among those calling for it. “We can find it in our hearts to forgive and appreciate the sincerity to which [Northam] has spoken,” Geoffrey Guns, a black local pastor, told CNN — while maintaining that Northam should still resign and, as I have written previously, find redemption on his own time rather than the Virginia taxpayer’s. “I’m not gonna really grade the picture that much because I know … white people,” added David Wright, a black Army veteran and grandfather, of the Northam photo. “It’s not a new thing. It’s just everybody is coming out in the open.”

Wright’s cynicism is well-earned. How many black grandfathers like him are U.S. governors today? How many black people of Northam and Herring’s generation have gone on to lead the country that enslaved their forefathers, the country that did not blink at the ridicule and degradation to which white men like Northam and Herring subjected them? The answer is few to none. Theirs may not have been the visceral racial terror of the lynching age, but its comparative gentility — clothed in frat sweaters, doctors’ coats, and lawyers’ suits — cradled an exclusionary culture that maintained the same hierarchies, with black people at the bottom. Northam and Herring may have grown up since then, but so did their black contemporaries. And rather than becoming political leaders for whom racist transgressions were youthful missteps to keep hidden and confront only out of professional obligation, more often black Virginians their age were the butt of their jokes, the first generation for whom Jim Crow was not quite a vivid memory but nevertheless haunted most corners of their lives.

Now, ironically, many of these same black Americans and their descendants are the people whose opinions regarding their tormentors’ racism are sought after by national news outlets. They are paraded in public relations campaigns — as the “black friend,” or the anecdotal black employee who once imparted a valuable lesson about what being black in America is really like — as proof that white people like Northam and Herring are better now, that of course they are not racist. Meanwhile, blackface remains a staple of white fun and white bonding. College students are routinely exposed for employing it. For elected officials, it is at the root of a remarkable number of scandals — from Florida’s former secretary of State to a former Brooklyn, New York, state assemblyman. It is no exaggeration to say that white people who wear blackface today could be tomorrow’s leaders. Several already are.

It tends to be overlooked in conversations about whether whites like Herring and Northam have aged out of such behavior, made sufficient amends, or deserve to be punished in perpetuity for their distant pasts, that growing out of racism is impossible for black people. It is inscribed in black reality at birth. It is written and rewritten daily in the very methods of America’s social organization. Today’s apologies do not erase the wounds of yesterday or today, or those that will inevitably open tomorrow. Yet the role black people are so often called upon to play in these situations is not as people wrestling with the violence of that legacy, but as barometers for white people’s racism. In reality, the stakes are much higher. It is worth asking whether black people, and black Virginians, deserve more.

Virginia’s Racist Past Is Present