From Blackface to Sexual Assault, the Crisis in Virginia Just Keeps Getting Worse

Virginia is experiencing a leadership crisis this week, and it’s highlighting how not  to deal with inappropriate deeds from the past. The situation is also a reminder that being a Democrat doesn’t mean you’re immune from doing things that are wildly inappropriate — and if the Democratic party wants to be a leader for social change, it needs to be prepared to take tough measures to hold politicians accountable.

It started with Governor Ralph Northam and a photo from a medical school yearbook featuring a person in blackface and another in a Klan robe. Northam told a variety of stories about the photo, and he didn’t directly take responsibility — even under pressure from members of the public and his own party.

As Northam made conflicting statements, his defenders slowly began to peel away — with Democratic leadership, including the state’s former governor, calling on him to resign.

There really wasn’t a better option: Instead of owning his actions, taking responsibility and turning to the black community for cues on what to do next — which might included a call to resign anyway — Northam doubled down on the racism.

Meanwhile, conversations started about a potential replacement if he did step down: Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.

Fairfax has been unafraid to call attention to racism in the past, and he’s worked on behalf of marginalized communities in Virginia. Fairfax has also just been accused of sexual assault, an allegation he didn’t handle well in public statements; he denied the claim and tried to discredit his accuser.

Democrats who should know better in the #MeToo era piled on, making much of the coverage suggesting her claims were unsubstantiated. Yet that individual, like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, had little reason to lie about a humiliating and traumatic episode in her life — especially knowing that she’d be raked over the coals for it.

Next in line if Fairfax also makes the decision to step down would be Attorney General Mark Herring — except, unfortunately, it turns out that he also liked to wear blackface in college. If Herring intended his confession to provoke sympathy for Northam, it backfired.

Now the entire country is wondering if anyone in Virginia is fit to lead.

Who’s next? That would be Republican Kirk Cox, speaker of the House of Delegates. If his name sounds familiar, that’s probably because he was involved in a squeaker of a race that ended in literally drawing names from a bowl to see who won a tied election.

Had Cox lost, it would have gone to Shelly Simonds, a Democrat — and Democrats would have gained control of the House.

If the labyrinthine story here seems stranger than fiction, welcome to politics. But also, welcome to a world where people of all political parties do bad things and we need to hold them accountable.

If it feels wrong and uncomfortable to call on Democrats to resign in a domino effect that paves the way for a Republican to take the governorship and all that comes with it, it should — but that’s not a reason to hold back on the calls to resign, and the pressure to hold Republicans to the same standard.

Not everyone agrees with this; feminist author and commentator Kate Harding argued that calls for Al Franken to resign in 2017 should be weighed against the complexities of the political system, for example. (You should really read her whole piece even if you don’t agree, as her thoughtful argument explores an incredibly complicated issue in a way that doesn’t let Franken off the hook.)

Meanwhile, Virginia’s Senate majority leader oversaw the production of a — different – racist yearbook, and the cop who was supposed to be monitoring protests associated with the scandal was outed as a white supremacist. Lest you dunk on Virginia in the face of this mounting list of embarrassments, it’s worth wondering whether there are skeletons in the closets of your own lawmakers.

Blackface isn’t okay, ever. Neither is sexual assault. The refusal to take ownership of these offenses and insistence on denial rather than reckoning isn’t a good look — and it’s not what the future of democracy should look like.

It sounds like it’s time to closely scrutinize Cox’s past.

Photo credit: VCU Capital News Service/Flickr/Creative Commons


heather g
heather g2 months ago

Highly charged comments - but you can't disregard the law.

Joan E
Joan E2 months ago

OK, one more. Abortion is the woman's choice, it is not forced on anyone. It is a woman making her own decision, which means she has the self-respect to decide what is right for her family. The two women who say they were sexually assaulted by the Lt Gov had the self-respect to alert people to what was done to them against their will.

Joan E
Joan E2 months ago

David F, I will say you are out of your mind about the infanticide fantasies. I acknowledge that Virginia has had other Dem administrations of late, but it is clear that Virginia has a Confederate tradition that was very slow to die. I heard the Governor being interviewed by Oprah's friend Gail. He was talking about the first indentured people coming to America. Gail said, "You mean SLAVES." The Governor and Attorney General grew up learning to minimize what happened in their state and the rest of the Confederacy. The Republicans are certainly no better, and are far more willing to take away people's voting rights for their own selfish reasons of staying rich and in power no matter who they abuse in the process.

Joan E
Joan E2 months ago

David F, you are out of your mind.

Joan E
Joan E2 months ago

I believe the situation is getting better now. The Governor was liked by the Black community before some troll from Russian or the Republicans went digging for dirt. He is STILL preferred by the Black voters despite the fact that both he and the attorney general didn't know better than playing with Blackface in college. The Governor has apologized to the Black community and they have given him some ideas as to how to make amends, such as supporting the Black colleges. He is happy to do this, and best of all, the Republicans won't be able to take control of the state and resume their racist policies that prevent Black people from voting and all the other Republican indignities toward people of color and people without enough resources.

Fred L
Fred L2 months ago

A good reminder to us all that there are plenty of assholes in both parties.

Karen H
Karen H2 months ago

It's interesting how people are screaming "this is wrong! These Democrats need to go home" when they say absolutely nothing about the Orange Menace in the White House who has been accused of sexual assault. Wrong is wrong - on both sides. If you're gonna punish one, you have to punish all. NO ONE is above the law.

silja s
silja salonen2 months ago

wrong is wrong .. there is no way to white wash it (no pun intended, or maybe, oh whatever) wrong is wrong.

Susanne R
Susanne R2 months ago

David F. - There isn't a state in the union that is allowed to kill live babies after they are born!

From Vox: "
On Thursday, Tran told the Washington Post that she "misspoke" in her response to Gilbert's question during the hearing: "I should have said: 'Clearly, no, because infanticide is not allowed in Virginia, and what would have happened in that moment would be a live birth.' "

"Tran also said she has been receiving death threats since footage of the hearing spread. She has not responded to Vox's request for comment."

What Tran and Northam said didn't even make sense, yet the Republicans ran with it and made an issue out of it as though it could possibly be real. How can you leave a newborn baby, evidently in need of resuscitation, unattended while the mother and doctors decide the baby's fate? If a baby needed to be 'resuscitated,' it would have to be done immediately. There's no state of suspended animation in humans. You wouldn't wait 15 minutes to perform CPR, would you?

David F
David F2 months ago

Jone E. Virginia historically is a purple state. Your post show you are a serious Fake News victim.