Blackface, #MeToo and Moonwalking: How Virginia Self-Destructed in a Week

By Arwa Mahdawi

February is Black History Month, not, as various people have joked in response to recent events, “Blackface History Month”. Officials in Virginia, however, seem intent on convincing everyone otherwise.

Last Friday, a photo from Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page emerged, which seemed to show the Democrat wearing either blackface or a Ku Klux Klan costume. The situation quickly went from very bad to very worse. Virginia’s top officials are embroiled in scandal: Mark Herring, the attorney general, has admitted to donning blackface, Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor, has been accused of sexual assault, and Tommy Norment, the senate majority leader, has been revealed as the managing editor of the racist yearbook.

With bizarre new developments emerging, the story seems to get weirder, and more racist, by the hour. So let’s recap how things have unfolded so far.

1 February
: Northam apologizes for the photo
and accepts responsibility

Shortly after Northam’s yearbook page from Eastern Virginia Medical School was published on a conservative website on Friday, the governor tweeted a video in which he said that the yearbook page doesn’t reflect his present character. “I cannot … undo the harm my behavior caused then and today,” he said. “But I accept responsibility for my past actions.”

My fellow Virginians, earlier today I released a statement apologizing for behavior in my past that falls far short of the standard you set for me when you elected me to be your governor. I believe you deserve to hear directly from me. — Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) February 2, 2019

2 February
: Northam decides
he doesn’t want to accept responsibility after all

Twenty-four hours after his mea culpa, Northam did a U-turn and denied being either of the people in the photo, saying he wouldn’t accept the numerous calls for him to resign. In a press conference, Northam said he had seen the photo in question for the first time on Friday and he was sure it wasn’t him. The reason he was so sure is because he distinctly remembered wearing blackface on another occasion in 1984: at a dance contest in Texas, when he dressed up as Michael Jackson. “It is because my memory of that episode is so vivid that I truly do not believe I am in the picture in my yearbook,” Northam said. He could not explain how the picture got on his yearbook page, but suggested there may have been a mix-up. Which, weirdly, he hadn’t noticed for over 30 years. The governor helpfully suggested that facial recognition software might prove it wasn’t him in the yearbook photo. Yes, that yearbook photo where someone is wearing a KKK hood covering their face.

Northam also took the opportunity to boast about his moonwalking skills and expound on the logistical difficulties of dressing as Jackson. “I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks,” he said, “and the reason I used a very little bit because – I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried that – you cannot get shoe polish off.” Sounds like someone with a lot of experience putting shoe polish on their face.

Northam also admitted that one of his nicknames at the Virginia Military Institute was “coonman”, a racist slur, but could not explain why.

3 February
: Northam spends most of the day out of public view

People continue to call on the governor to resign and he continues to ignore them. Meanwhile, Dr William Ellwood, who worked on Northam’s yearbook, explained that it was highly improbable the photo was published on the governor’s page without him realizing. “In my experience, the most likely thing is he submitted that picture,” he said.

As calls mounted for Northam to resign, it started to look probable that Fairfax would become governor. However, late on Sunday night, the conservative website Big League Politics published allegations that Fairfax had sexually assaulted Vanessa Tyson, a fellow at Stanford University, at the 2004 Democratic national convention. Virginia was thrown further into disarray.

4 February
: Fairfax denies sexual assault allegations

The 39-year-old, who would be the only African American governor in the US if Northam were to resign, told the press that the encounter was “100% consensual”. He also suggested that the allegations were a smear campaign.

6 February
: Virginia’s attorney general admits to blackface
as allegations against Fairfax escalate

On Wednesday, Mark Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, who would become governor if Northam and Fairfax stepped down, admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s. Herring, who had previously called for Northam to resign, issued a statement saying he had dressed as a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.

Shortly after Herring’s statement, Tyson issued a statement detailing how Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in 2004. “With tremendous anguish, I am now sharing this information about my experience and setting the record straight,” Tyson said. “Given his false assertions, I’m compelled to make clear what happened.”

7 February: it’s reported that a Republican lawmaker in the Virginia senate served as managing editor of the 1968 yearbook

Just in case you thought you couldn’t squeeze any more senior Virginia politicians into this scandal, it emerged on Thursday that the senate majority leader, Tommy Norment, was the managing editor of the yearbook containing the photos of Northam. That same yearbook also included other photos of students posing in blackface and racist slurs that referred to African Americans, Jews and Asians.

What’s next?

At this rate, who knows. Virginia house speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican, is fourth in the line of succession, although it now seems just as probable that Northam may not resign after all. All we can know is whatever happens in the coming weeks, all of this is unlikely to harm any of the men’s reputations in the long-term. It’s very difficult for racism or sexual assault allegations to ruin a male politician’s career. Just ask Donald Trump.

This article provided by NewsEdge.