Red-Faced Northam

When are we going to have this difficult conversation about race? I keep hearing calls to talk about race in America, about our sordid past and present with racial injustice. Let’s talk—we need to talk—we always need to talk, the conversation is never over; as far as I can tell, the conversation hasn’t even begun. In strolls Ralph Northam’s yearbook picture, in it, he (surprise, surprise) a white man, is either wearing blackface or is dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe—he can’t tell which is worse, so he says that he is one of the two in that picture. As far as the media is concerned, both are equally awful. End of story. We call for his resignation. And the conversation about race continues not to be had.

Mr. Northam, the Democratic Party, and America are again missing a great opportunity not just to talk about race, but also to talk about what is fair game when deciding the current leadership qualities of our representatives. If there’s any common thread to the topics that interest this blog, it’s to try to find some semblance of an answer for why a concept like political correctness is as divisive as it is, why it isn’t so obviously agreed upon—as Democrats would like to believe—and why some issues don’t spark the controversy that, again, Democrats believe they merit.

Ralph Northam is experiencing the same core issue that Kevin Hart experienced not too long ago. Something from his past was dug up and it is being examined through today’s lens as if Northam, today, committed that condemnable act. With Kevin Hart, it was the homophobic tweets; with Northam, it’s blackface. Northam is right not to step down. Democrats are wrong in asking for his resignation. My justification? Virginians are evenly divided on the issue, according to a Washington Post – Schar School Poll. What that tells me is that, while it’s straightforward to say blackface should be repudiated, it isn’t as straightforward a verdict whether one should be punished for that offense, especially if it was committed decades ago. Sexual assault is a different story—I’ll get into Justin Fairfax in a moment.

Where Northam erred, and continues to err, was in his response. He said he was one of the two in the picture—take your pick, it doesn’t matter—and then he backtracked, saying, oh no, actually, I was mistaken, I’m neither of those two but I may have worn blackface at some point. The more mature response, and one showing real leadership, would have been to say, “Yes, I wore blackface but I would like to speak with Virginians in a town hall setting about that, but also about whether they think that I am a racist who is enacting racist policies.” That oft-requested conversation could have been had, and it could still be had, but it’s not happening. Worse, by immediately calling for his resignation, Democrats didn’t even seem to want to have that conversation. The Party got their two cents in, didn’t care for input, made their ruling on the matter, and considered it finished. That is also not leadership. You don’t convince half of Virginians that you are correct by declaring they are wrong.

Not to be left out, Virginia Attorney General, Mark Herring, decided to get ahead of his own scandal by co-opting the #metoo slogan to say that, he, too, wore blackface. Keep in mind he also called for Northam’s resignation. In part of his statement, Mark Herring wrote the following:

“This was a onetime occurrence and I accept full responsibility for my conduct. That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others. It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.”

Mr. Herring has yet to step down, despite his calls for Northam to do so. Later in his statement, he details the steps he has taken in his career to enfranchise communities of color, and ends by saying that his judges will be those “directly affected by the transgressor…” I don’t see why Mr. Herring wouldn’t apply the same standard to Northam. If he did, he would find that Northam’s job was secure, since, as the Washington Post poll reveals, 58% of African Americans do not believe Northam should step down. It would be grossly hypocritical, then, for Northam to go and Herring to stay. Herring would be showing real leadership by voluntarily leaving his post now, since he believes those guilty of the offense should be immediately removed, thus placing pressure on Northam to do the same. Is this primarily a race issue? Is this a “the-dumb-shit-young-people-do” issue? Is this a “do people change” issue? A combination? I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s not a straightforward issue, and if it were up to the African Americans polled, Northam would stay. Herring would stay. As for Justin Fairfax…

The verdict is still out on Justin Fairfax. The reason for that is because it brings up another sticky topic: consent. In a previous post on Brett Kavanugh, I talked about the #metoo movement’s power in the corporate world, but that its standards weren’t yet proven in the political one, with the exception of former senator Al Franken. Whereas allegations of rape arose from Kavanugh’s nomination, with Justin Fairfax, the issue is that of consent gone sour—well, then a rape allegation also arose. What initially began as consensual sexual encounters, according to Fairfax, went, according to his accusers, into unrequested, unwanted territory. The second woman, Meredith Watson, stands ready to testify; we are reminded of Professor Christine Blasey Ford and her courage in coming forward. It would be hard to think that one would willingly subject themselves to potential public scorn unless they felt it was their duty to come forward and speak.

The great irony of this entire situation is that, in a series of events that initially began because of a blackface scandal, it is Justin Fairfax, an African-American, who should probably lose his job.

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