The Roundtable is Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. The text has been lightly edited for clarity. This conversation happened on February 9, 2019.
Hello and welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s discussion of political events. I’m Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Sr. Managing Editor, and with me are senior contributor David Spitzley, Editor Christopher Dahlin, contributing writer Ann Anderson,. This week we’re talking about Virginia, where the state administration is embroiled in what can only be termed Scandalpocalypse. It began when a photograph surfaced from Governor Ralph Northam’s med school yearbook featuring a person in blackface and a person in a KKK outfit. Since then, Northam has admitted wearing blackface, as has the AG, while credible allegations of sexual assault have been leveled at Lt. Gov. Fairfax. Let’s start with this: how bad is it to have worn blackface in your youth? What does that say about the position of Gov Northam and AG Herring as leaders in Virginia?
I haven’t thought of it before, but I find it completely unsurprising. I am guessing a great amount of the older folks in Virginia government have done this. The Republican Senate Leader was in charge of editing a yearbook in 1968 with many of these kinds of images.
What matters is the reaction, and Northam dropped the ball. His second reaction is marginally better, but things are a mess
And we can’t go on without mentioning that this was kicked off by the Republicans trying to prevent an abortion bill that cut down the requirement fron 3 doctors’ signatures to 1.
Can you go into that? I hadn’t heard that connection.
As I understand it, the revelation about Northam’s blackface, as well renewed attention in the initial Fairfax allegation, both came from a right wing media site operating in reaction to Northam’s remarks about a bill slightly increasing access to late term abortion. The two significant policy shifts were that the standard for the procedure now included mental health risk as well as the physical risk to the mother involved in proceeding with a birth, and that only one doctor would have to sign off on that, rather than the current three. Northam’s somewhat confused remarks about the bill led some on the right to believe he was in favor of, uh, post-birth abortion, which of course is not a thing. It’s important to note in this context that if any of these three men resign, at least one of their positions will be filled with a Republican, thanks to Virginia rules of succession and the GOP holding the state legislature by one seat decided by a coin toss thanks to a suspect recount process.
There are so many moving parts to this. There’s racism. There’s sexual assault. There is a coordinated conservative attack to undermine the will of the people by taking out the duly elected Democratic leadership of Virginia. There’s the origin, i.e., an attempt to undermine in an effort to forward anti-choice agendas. There is the question of whether the source of the information matters if the behavior is unacceptable. There are the questions of weighing past against present behavior and forgiveness. There’re the questions of believing the women, changing stories, and quality of apologies. There are issues of Democrats standing for principles sometimes to the detriment of losing good people while watching Republicans who do worse continue to sit in government positions. There’s also the 2020 presidential candidates jumping on the judgment train in order to look proactive, perhaps prematurely so. There is the issue of Republicans weaponizing Democrats’ tendencies to eat themselves. There is a lot of frustration and not a lot of easy answers here.
The problem is bad behavior is bad behavior, no matter how we learned of it. However, what we have here is also a question of whether the past behavior is truly in the past and there is true understanding of it being bad. Northam’s apologies muddied whether he really understood the situation. I would argue Herring’s did not, but he also had the example of Northam’s prior apologies failing to satisfy. As for Fairfax, again, past behavior, not proven, but sounding more credible, and also the kind for which an apology is an admission to having committed crimes.
Basically this is a very complicated situation, and no one is going to be entirely satisfied with the outcome, whatever it may be.
I think the most important facet of the way this unfolded is that Herring showed how white folks should deal with our past, whether personal or societal: he fessed up to his misdeeds (with no evident impending data drop to boot), stated clearly that his behavior was inexcusable, asked for forgiveness from those he hurt, and gave evidence that he had fought to improve conditions in the years since. Contrition plus reparative justice is how we move forward on the issue of race, and excuses are neither helpful, nor sufficient to save one’s bacon anymore. Although recent polling suggests Northam may still survive this…
I think we’re all in agreement that, in a vacuum, this is bad behavior that should have consequences, up to and probably including resignation. But in many ways this is the first test in years of that principle in a situation where resignation will hand power over to the Republican party. How do we square our desire to see the right thing done with the practical reality that any Republican is likely to be worse on racial policy than either Northam or Herring? Is that any different from saying that Fairfax would be better for Virginia women than the party that wants to limit a woman’s right to choose?
I think the tension between the acceptability of individual officials and partisan dynamics is the hardest part of this.
One question is whether a party can really be better on an issue when their leadership has failed to address it themselves. I think there is a meaningful difference between wearing blackface and committing sexual assault, but both should leave one concerned about whether the individuals involved can really be trusted to do the right thing around applicable legislation (e.g. hate crimes and racial intimidation in the first case, and, well, sexual assault in the other). Pointing at the other side and saying “no, really, they’re worse, trust us” is less convincing when nothing happens to those who come under a cloud.
I think if the situation were reversed and Virginia had three Republican officials accused of blackface and sexual crimes, and they refused to resign, we might deride them for putting party over country. I square that circle by believing that Dems actually do have the country’s best interests at heart, and that a little more power grabbing and a little less norm adherence might do us good as a party and as a country. But it’s still uncomfortable to think about.
I think one of the big tensions here is also the speed of moral progression. Desegregation is within the memorable lifetime of these people. What is acceptable has changed a lot faster than who is in charge. So actions that were seen as acceptable and palatable are now verboten. It is a difficult answer to solve, but I think a part of that solution is that we are going to be more careful going forward, and the publicly racist will diminish further in our party. One reason why sexual assault is pernicious is because it is so hidden, but is becoming less so
I think’s the question of whether losing these people is worth it is exactly the question many Virginians are asking right now. A recent poll indicated that, for example, African-Americans in Virginia favored Northam staying, whereas whites did not. That was true across the board and among Democrats. However, that same poll had a pretty large margin of error and had what could be considered a fairly small sampling. So it’s unclear what those numbers really mean. The discussions I have seen among Virginian Democrats on this is exactly on the issue of whether it is worth having these folks step down and face worse policy results for both African-Americans and minorities due to Republican takeover. Plus it encourages the continuation of this Republican strategy of taking down Democrats by hoisting them on their own principles, while the Republicans don’t face similar standards. Another means of essentially suppressing the vote, like gerrymandering and voting laws. So this is hard.
However, this would be a great time to Democrats to figure out what their standards for handling these kinds of scandals are going to be. Instead of rushing to judgment, there needs to be a figuring out of where lines should be drawn. We are talking past behavior in the case of Northam and Herring. Herring has, as was already stated, handled it well, with full admission of the wrong, and a clear indication that’s not who he is today. Northam’s comments about moonwalking and his reversal about the photos cast doubt as to his veracity and his understanding of how serious this is. But his record in Virginia indicates that he is not a racist these days. So where should the line be drawn. Is it worthy of resignation? That’s what Democrats need to figure out so they don’t rush to judgment but instead treat all of these things fairly and with principles.
Robert Byrd was a member of the KKK, but became a strong advocate for civil rights. If we go too harshly, we don’t let those who have changed have a chance to do good. And we send a strong signal that forgiveness is not possible. Which, in this day and age, only further encourages the “everyone go to your corners and come out fighting at the bell” mentality. On the other hand, blackface is racist, and it should not simply get a pass.
The sexual assault allegations are more troubling, because there is some credibility there, they are more recent, and, honestly, more serious, as they veer into actual criminal behavior, as well as being morally wrong. Nor are they the kind where Fairfax can simply apologize, since doing so would be admitting to the crime. So he has to deny. I think those accusations are turning out to be even more problematic than the blackface.
Getting back to the blackface, that same poll I mentioned had 11% of Virginians having done blackface or known someone who has. I have watched people quizzing each other on their experiences with blackface on social media since this scandal broke, with a lot of people denying they’d ever seen it in person, until reminded of Halloween costumes. Then those who were young people 40-30 years ago suddenly remembered seeing it back then in costumes. So it can be said to have been an acceptable past behavior that was still wrong then and now, but more openly recognized as wrong now. Does that have bearing on the conversation? I think it does, but the question is how much.
Again, there are serious questions that Democrats need to ask themselves about what their standards are and how they are going to apply them. This is a hard test case, but perhaps a necessary one, if this is going to be the way of the future.
I think the short term question is tricky—even saying we should leave it up to Virginians is no answer, given that polling shows them fairly split even among Democrats. But the long term question is easier. My position is that as soon as can be done without handing significant power over to Republicans (you just know all of them have done blackface, or hold racist policies, or both), we get all three of these men out of office and replace them with Democrats who don’t have such horrifying skeletons in their closets. Maybe it’s time for women and people of color (maybe women of color) to lead that state away from its racist not-so-distant past. I don’t to want to hurt the people of Virginia by giving them a state leadership that would institute policies they didn’t vote for, and I also don’t want to hurt the trust that voters have in the Democratic party to be better. We have to work to balance those two priorities going forward.
Let’s go to final thoughts on this. What would you tell a voter in Virginia faced with making the decision of how to respond to these events?
Going by what I have seen from Democrats from Virginia, they don’t want to lose Northam. I’d tell them to forgive him, based on his current history, but watch him closely. As for Fairfax, probably get him out before this blows up even bigger, and replace him with a solid African-American female lt. governor with no skeletons, which I believe is possible to do, so long as Northam is still around. That way should Northam and Herring eventually go down, there is still Democratic leadership left over, and neither party has an example of a pathway to removing the other via post-election scandal-mongering. That way, maybe Virginians can get back to legislators that legislate instead of dealing with this mess.
I think the central truth is that >everyone< raised in the US has racism and sexism woven into their minds, and there is no immaculate conception in the political class. The critical question in every case, whether a politician is accused of something or not, is whether they are fighting to tear down racist and sexist policies, and if so then judge any exposed sins according to their contrition and believability. If they aren’t helping, though, then get them the hell out of office whether or not they’re known to have done something awful or not. “He is not a racist these days” is not enough.
I think what’s important now is to ensure that, whatever happens, we continue the conversation this has started. If we can work to confront blackface and its history, to really consider what it means to atone for the past, then maybe we can have politicians who are mindful of how what they do now with their votes, their words and their example sets the reality for all Americans. This too is a past we’ll look back on. The goal is to do better, and the best way to figure out how to do that is to continue talking and thinking about it, as Virginians, as Democrats, and as Americans.
We’ll leave it there. Thanks to all for a lively discussion, and to you for reading.