AFP Richmond /US
Can a politician come back from revelations about racist behaviour in their past?
What if that behaviour evoked the darkest chapters of American history, from slavery to segregation?
That’s a question the state of Virginia has been grappling with since last week when its governor, Ralph Northam, was caught up in a row over blackface: the caricaturing of African Americans by crude methods of skin darkening as a means of entertaining white people since the minstrel shows of the 1830s.
The 59-year-old has so far refused to resign after first admitting he appeared in a yearbook photograph showing a person in blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan robes, only to deny a day later that either individual was him.
Northam’s deputy has since become embroiled in a sexual misconduct row while the next official in succession for the top job has admitted to engaging in blackface in college too.
Virginians — and Americans as a whole — are now asking themselves how to weigh the transgressions from a public official’s past against their record as a whole, and whether even an authentic apology can help regain voters’ faith.
For James “JJ” Minor, president of the Richmond chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the episode has brought to the fore the painful legacy of the state’s past.
“Black face is dehumanising, it’s evil,” Minor, who is black, said in an interview at the state capital’s railway station in the Shockoe Bottom district, once home to a booming slave auction industry that featured in the film 12 Years a Slave.
Sometimes known as the “Cradle of America,” Virginia was home to four of the country’s first five presidents.
But it was also one of the most significant regions for the Atlantic slave trade, the main battleground of the mid-19th century Civil War that was fought over slavery, and later one of the states most resistant to the civil rights movement that brought an end to segregation.
In 2017, the Virginia city of Charlottesville hosted an alt-right rally which saw a neo-Nazi ram his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and wounding 28.
The Northam episode has shown “that Sweet Old Dixie is still around,” Minor, 44, said, using a nickname for the Southern states of the Confederate era.
The NAACP’s position is for Northam to resign immediately, a stance shared by the state assembly’s powerful Black Caucus.
“The legacy of slavery, racism, and the Jim Crow era remains an albatross around the necks of African Americans,” the lawmakers said in a statement.
“We can no longer hide behind a facade of unity, we must fiercely and intentionally combat the hatred of the past that still lives today.”
But a Washington Post-Schar School poll showed Virginians deadlocked on the issue with equal numbers for and against his resignation — and support for him staying in office higher among African Americans than among whites.
Some like Reverend Dwayne Whitehead, the African American pastor of Richmond’s World Overcomers Church, argue forcefully against punishing Northam for decades-old wrongdoings.
“I’m not as devastated by blackface and neither will I hold a person accountable for what they did 35 years ago, when this election for him as governor was not based upon who he was 35 years ago,” said the grey-suited 52-year-old.
“To do so, would violate any principles I have of faith that says a person cannot change,” he said.
For Whitehead, the impulse to oust the governor stems from a bandwagon mentality, and weakens the Democratic Party at a time when racial violence has spiked nationwide — linked by critics to incendiary rhetoric and policies by Republican President Donald Trump.
“I know that sometimes,” Whitehead argued, “it’s a case of ‘I’m supposed to respond like this.’ And ‘this is what’s expected of me.’”
The blackface controversy has exploded into a full blown crisis for Northam’s Democratic Party after it emerged his deputy Justin Fairfax had been accused by two women of sexual misconduct, likely ruling him out of contention should his boss bow to calls to step down.
The third-in-line to the governorship, Attorney General Mark Herring, has since pre-emptively announced he too wore brown makeup and a wig to imitate a rapper while in college in 1980.
Jasmine Leeward, a spokeswoman for the New Virginia Majority progressive advocacy group, said Herring’s open admission of what appeared to be a “one time incident” and the “authenticity in his approach” left more room for forgiveness.
On that basis, her organisation wants the governor to resign but Herring to stay.
“He has been a very articulate champion of some of the issues,” the 25-year-old black woman said, citing work fighting for migrants from several Muslim countries when the Trump administration announced its travel ban.
“It makes the case that he has made the effort to become a very different person.”
Where Northam is widely seen as having failed was his reaction to the yearbook revelation: a confused sequence that saw him first admit, then deny, appearing in the photo, only to apologise instead for wearing blackface on another occasion while imitating the late Michael Jackson.
Yet despite that, Reverend Whitehead said he continued to support him because of initiatives like a yearlong dialogue about racial justice, announced days before the blackface row.
Northam has since told The Washington Post he plans to dedicate the rest of his term to the same cause.
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