Beyond "Blackface" - 4 Troubling Implications of the Virginia Fiasco

Clearly More to This Than Just "Racist" Pics & Sexual Assualt Allegations ...

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by Charles Ellison | Publisher’s Riff | @ellisonreport

It is, really, a hot mess of a way to open up Black History Month observances, and maybe that’s the point: dredging up “racist” pics of a recently elected sitting governor … who is a modern Democrat from a current party that takes moral high ground on issues of race … in a state where the first African slaves (of record) were forcefully received by the American colonies 400 complete years ago … and that controversy above followed by allegations of sexual assault against the Black Lt. Gov. who could replace him. Sifting through events since revelations Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) engaged in not-so-funny redneck shenanigans 35-years ago - and has effectively torpedoed his response (through an astounding degree of stubborn White male privilege navigation) and any chance at public redemption - prompts a number of thoughts on what’s playing out in the former cradle of the Confederacy and where it’s all headed. Certainly, if Northam stubbornly refuses to resign and rides it out, there’s a threat that pressure subsides somewhat and we see the very awkward, but damaging image of him overseeing official state observances of the 400 year slavery mark at Jamestown later this year. Maybe not. But what’s more important is not what’s happening to Northam and the firestorm that’s created, but what all of that really means - both statewide and nationally - and the series of events this may have triggered:

A Soft Coup in Richmond

Make no bones about it, a very sophisticated play is happening. Not only are the career-ending pics of Northam, but there are now nasty allegations of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D-VA) suddenly surfacing shortly thereafter, someone who stands to be the Commonwealth’s second Black governor, and making Virginia the first state to have two elected Black state chief executives. Fairfax has vigorously denied those allegations and The Washington Post, which conducted an exhaustive investigation of the allegations, never went to print with the story because it couldn’t substantiate it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter: Fairfax moment may have passed, his own political career now fraught with uncertainty.

The timing of these events feels very coordinated for a number of reasons. The blog site responsible for both posting the Northam photos and reviving the Fairfax allegations is a Trump-network backed/Republican-operative managed website known as “Big League Politics.” There’s a lot more going on there if you have time to browse. It’s a frightening glimpse into 2020 of new digital dark art currently being piloted in Virginia.

A look at the formal line of succession in Virginia drops a hint as to what could be happening. If Northam steps out, the governorship would go to Fairfax. But that’s not looking good, so if Fairfax steps out, it then falls to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who is also a Democrat. There’s already talk in conservative media circles of Herring stepping in.

But if there is a coordinated effort to knock off Democrats in Richmond, Herring might want to - right now - revisit any skeletons in his closet. Should something come out about Herring, then the governorship falls in the hands of Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox - a Republican. If that were to happen, full political control of Richmond would return to Republicans (since the GOP there already holds slim majorities in both House and Senate). Virginia Democrats also enter 2019 state legislative elections badly wounded, along with limited options for the governor’s race in 2021. This also has huge and worrisome implications for Democrats in 2020 given Virginia’s status as a crucial presidential battleground state.

The other question is: Where else could something like this happen?

Republicans on Racism and Sexism: To Trust or Not to Trust

Republicans crying foul and condemning others over racist photos and sexual assault allegations is, indeed, a blatant case of pots calling kettles black. Certainly, Northam should have resigned already. But, to have Republicans and conservatives, including President Trump himself, go all righteous on issues of race and gender is much like Scar telling Mustafa in The Lion King that he can be fully trusted … while the claw is deep in Mustafa’s face. Hence, shame on everyone for not seeing it while it’s happening.

Still, the purpose is to sow confusion and discord. Republicans and conservatives, on the whole, care little about race or the impacts of racism or gender discrimination and sexual violence. The goal is to create an atmosphere of doubt regarding the Left’s standing on such issues, to the point where even the Left doubts itself and the Democratic Party, as well. Party unity on that side is always a tall order, so this episode further obliterates that. Meanwhile, it has the added effect of offering cover to Trump and his base faithful who want to believe - or show - that their president is not “racist” because look at what he just tweeted about Northam.

With 2016 being so successful, this is also a repeat of masterful technique by Republicans that helped to disengage enough Black voters in that last presidential election to the point where Black non-voting was just as destructive as suppressed Black votes. If Northam stays, and Democratic leadership seems unable to remove him, the Black electorate will take that as a clear sign of open disrespect. It could also serve to erode support from women, particularly White women looking for an excuse to, once again, vote for Republicans in 2020 or to vote (or not vote) elsewhere. Democrats stumbling over Northam and Fairfax will create enough doubt as to create more piles of narrative that siphon off just enough support. Progressives will pile on. Media commentators will regurgitate “bothside-ism” talking points. Ultimately, it’s not like this episode encourages any more support of Democratic candidates heading into Virginia 2019 state elections and 2020 presidential and Congressional elections.

“Racist” Sticks and Stones: Knowing the Difference

While broad condemnation of Northam might seem like a promising exercise in racial progress and reconciliation, in some ways it’s really not. The source of the revelations is not born out of any good intentions on the part of the Republican operatives who spilled them. And it’s another example of mainstream discourse on these issues cutting strange, incoherent and very distorting differences between what’s considered “racist” by pop culture and what’s not.

In many ways, this current episode is an example of society’s continued mass failure at completely acknowledging what racism truly is. Sure, the Northam yearbook pics are, by definition, “racist” since images do have power: symbols such as blackface and the Klan have been methodically used for centuries to inflict terror, harm and oppression on Black people. Even though it’s 1984, Northam should’ve known better; he more than likely did, but, this is a White male growing up in proudly “redneck” southern Virginia despite the trends at the time.

What’s troubling is the difference in public treatment over this incident compared to routine, hourly incidents of systemic racism and hate. There is widespread outrage at the bigotry of indecent behavior that is an extension of racism; but, we never see that level of consensus outrage over the much more damaging, sinister and violent forms of systemic racism which continuously inflict harm on Black populations through rampant and acceptable inequality. Virginia’s Black poverty rate is 16 percent - way above that of the Commonwealth’s overall 10 percent poverty rate, and considerably more than White (7 percent) and Latino (9 percent) populations and a near match to the state’s Black population share of 20 percent. Food insecurity, lack of affordable housing and lack of health insurance is very high in Virginia - in fact, among the highest rates in the nation - and such disparities disproportionately and dangerously impact African Americans in the state, as they do throughout the nation. Virginia is also one of the Top 10 most “hateful states” in the nation, or one of 10 states harboring the highest concentrations of white supremacist organizations (explaining why it was so easy for white nationalist groups to descend upon Charlottesville). These organizations continue to flourish either undetected or tolerated. Meanwhile, police brutality against Black populations in that state and elsewhere is a fairly common practice.

Where is the outrage over that and more? Anger and outrage over the indecent, bigoted choices of a White male growing up in proudly “redneck” southern Virginia seems disingenuous when it fails to extend into the regular oppression faced by Black populations on a routine and massive scale. Policymakers on the state, local and federal level continue to shape racist policy and openly suppress Black voters; micro-aggressions and discrimination in the workplace are a common feature in public and private sector organizations, often with the consent or support of employees who are more than likely expressing fake incredulity at the Northam photos. Black neighborhoods are the most poisoned by bad air and water quality; meanwhile Black children remain mired in dysfunctional, barely operable and environmentally toxic school districts. The list is endless; yet, mainstream discussion and debate treats many of these issues above as “racially-charged” as opposed to just being downright racist. Unless there is broad public condemnation of these conditions and the racist policy that perpetuates them, there will be little progress on matters of race. Racism must be recognized and correctly definied as more than something impolite, but as a national crisis and pattern of legal oppression. Perhaps it’s time that politicians are forced to resign or are ousted for the actual policy harm they inflict on historically marginalized populations as opposed to waiting for an embarrassing photo or video or tweet to surface.

Blackface More Important Than World-Ending Nukes

What’s also unfortunate is that the public missed a big opportunity to grasp and adequately respond to other major news developments. We have yet to engage in a public condemnation of the Trump administration pulling out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), an announcement that caught the rest of the world off balance while news outlets were busily covering blackface pics. Russia followed suit, predictably, shortly thereafter, and announced it was building a new class of intermediate range nukes. The treaty officially ended last Saturday - a day after the Northam revelations.

This is an enormously dangerous development - and of apocalyptic proportions since it gives a green light to unfettered nuclear weapons proliferation. And Russia’s announcement also positions Moscow to now take its lost half of Europe back since those nations will have to deal with the renewed threat of nuclear annihilation. Other countries are also watching and are taking the Trump administration’s move as approval for their nuclear weapons programs. Non-state bad actors can, potentially, have more access to nuclear weapon technology. Meanwhile, there are scores of other developments: the president is openly feuding with his intelligence chiefs, mulling a fake national emergency to build a border wall and just named a World Bank skeptic to lead the World Bank.

So, what’s more important and in need of a discussion? Racist selfies in a yearbook? Or, the very existence of the planet compromised by the expansion of the nuke franchise? You decide.