Saturday, February 9, 2019

Ruminations On Vriginia's Difficult Situation

A week ago I posted here supporting VA Gov Ralph Northam, comparing him favorably to the late Robert C. Byrd of WV.  A day later I joined the call for him to resign after his bizarre press conference that has still left unpleasant unresolved issues such as who put that awful photo in his yearbook and why.  Since then much else has come forth, and this continues. In any case it looks like Northam may hang in for at last awhile, although the situation is complicated and constantly changing, to put it mildly. What I intend to add in this post beyond the latest news is a combination of inside local infornation as well as, hopefully, a deeper historical perspective.

Last morning's (Friday, 2/8), Washington Post top headline was that Northam would not resign soon, and late this afternoon I as an employee of the  Commonwealth  of VA received an email message saying he hoped we would all support him continuing to lead the state, while carefully not being too out there too much on that he would stay in office for his full term.

One reason why he was not going to resign immediately, even without the recent collapse of his most immediate successors, is that until Feb. 23 the VA legislature is debsting a serious budget issue.  The Trump tax law has resulted in a revenue windfaall for Virginia.  This involves technical details I know but will not bore any readers of this with. So there is an ongoing debate in the VA legislature on what to do with this extra money, with the barely majority GOP in the legislature saying give it all to upper middle income persons, while Northam and the Dems have proposed giving half of it to lower income people while using the other half to fund various state initiatives. If this current scandal had not appeared I think  Northan would have gotten an agreement not too far from what he wanted. Now in his weakened state, the ultimate compromise will be closer to the GOP version.

For any not following the news since a week ago, both of Northam's immeiate successors hhave themselves come under unpleasant scrutiny.  Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has now been seriolusly acccused of two sexual assalutls. When accused of the first he denied  it and hired an attorney.  The second accusation coming a few hours ago is of rape, and while earlier many were supporting him to replace Northam, this now seems to have become unlikely.  I note that I never liked Fairfax, Iknow all these people personally, and the African American I would like to seee as governor is Levar Stoney, currently Mayor of Richmond and a grad of JMU where I teach.

And now the second in line to the governorship of VA, assuming that both Northam and Fairfax resign (neither of which at this point has so far remotely come close to doing so), is  Attorney General Mark Herring, now in his second term, having stepped aside from running  for Lt Gov to let the now seriously damaged J. Fairfax run for that.  Last Thursday AG Herring revealed that he also had performed in blacface in 1980 at UVa at age 19.

If  Northam, Fairfax, and Herring all resign or forced out of office, then the acting governor will be the Speakr of the Hoouse, Kirk Cox, not only a Republican, but one how just gave an impassioned anti-abortion speech full of ridiculously irrelevelant Biblical passages, given that there is nothing in the  Bible that directy forbids abortion.

As it is, it appears that all of this blew up because Northam is a pediatrric neurologist, who only recently became a politician. So when Dems in the VA legislature attempted to loosen rules on late abotions, Dr. Northam got into rare and weird cases I was not aware of involving treatment of deformed fetuses and whether one born should be"revived." Personally, I do not know how to deal with such exremely rare cases, although baically siding with mothers and their physicians.  But Republicans cherry picking this overly specfic discussion by Dr. Northam turned it into "infanticide," with Trump making this charge in his SOTU.

More immediatley and seriously the rumor I have heard is that what triggered the revelation of that embarrassing photo in Northam's yearbook came as a result of his professional testimony about this  odd and rare case, which his opponents seized on, blocking any expansion of abortion rights in VA and providing fodder for Trump's ranting in his SOTU about "infanticide," a false charge.

But back in VA, reportedly a rommate from med school of  Northam got ticked off by this medical testimony by Northam, and then leaked the story to whhatever media about  the yearbook photos.  This set off he should resign, leading us to the now  unaccepable (although I read he  has hiired lawyers, puke), and then the now damaged AG Herring. While so far Speaker Cox is "clean," aside from being  a far right  winger, the  GOP majority leader of the stat senate, Norman Tennant, has been accused of a half century ago being an editor of a yearbook containg racist photos.

I have lived in VA for 42 yearss and have deep south ancestry includingVA.  But this matter has made me realize that for all my deep family backgound going back to the 1600s in VA, I was a and am a "damned yankee" to all those born and raised here.  My parents were born and raised in Deep South northern Florida, and when young I spent serious time there.  This made me think I knew the South, but I now know that ultimately I was  an outsider, especially given that i went not only to high school in liberal/progressive Madison, Wisconsin, where the state capitol building has a museum for the Grand Army of the Reuplic, the ultimate hard core of the northern Union that won the Civil War ("War of Northern Aggrsssion according to a cousin of my father that my wife from USSR/Russia met in 1987).

So a big revelation to me in the last week is how widespread this "blackfacing" and related racist manifestations were even into recent times.  The yearbook where Northams  photo appeared (Eastern Medical School of Virginia) had racist photos as recently as 2013, when the then dean just shut down the yearbooks.  I have never seen a blackfaced performance, but now  old very liberal and local friends have been surfacing with old past incidents of racist conduct.  This sort of resembles post-WW II France, where many collaberated with the Nazi Vichy regime, but then later joined the anti-Nazi Reistance. Eventuallly this became a matter of when one  turned from one side to the other, and good liberal close friends have been essentially playing postwar French fessing up to just exactly when they stopped using the "n-word," much less blackfacing.

The deeper history of all this is in Virginia 400 hundred years ago in 1619 when on the one hand the oldest continuing English speaking legislatiive  body in North America was founded, the same one (with some modifications over the centuries), that I noted above is trying to resolve the Trump tax "reform" with VA tax law. The other is the first arrival in what is now the  USA of African slaves.  Needless to say, this latter matter is on many minds and relevant to this current  controversy.

To make things even worse, it was in Virgiinia in 1705 that the crucial laws were passed fully establishing that slavery was to be of people of African descent and that those people could not marry anyone of European descent. So cince then in 1860 the state had more slaves than any other, its capitol became the that of the Confederate States of America, with half the bsttles of the succeeding Civil War (or "War of Northertn Agression" according to some of my cousins of earlier generations), and then its state capital became the capital of the Confedracy. This led to half the battles of the Civil War being fought in Virginia.

More recently we had the  Byrd Machine supporting reistance against racial integrstion of public  schools after Brown vs Board of Education in 1954.  Eventually this was all over come. But in the private places, including many frats on many campuses until very recently, racist practices such as "blackfacing" persisted.  And although the worst violence came from outsiders, in Charlottesville in August, 2017, wwe saw overt racist violence in Virginia.

Eventually this has become personal. With all these revelations, very liberal friends of  mine have now outed thesselves as having been varyng degrees of racist in the past. I now  realize that  while I have deep southern ancestry including high officers in the Confederate army, I was born and raised in the North.  I did  not see all this  stuff, and I did not personally haave to go through this process of personally deracizing myself, which I now realize my deep southern parents went through, my fahter moving from deep south racist Democratic Party affiation when he went to math grad school in Princeton in the 30s to being a Republican, When he took us in 1963 to uber-progrssive Madison, Wisconsin, well, no wonder I did not do blackface.

A final bottom line is that Gov. Northam's still uresolved yearbook photo has the absurd possibility of a racial reconciliation to all this.  I do not know why he continues to claim no knowlege of the origin or handling of this od photo of blackfaced white person standing next to someone wearing a KKK hooded outfit that is in his medical school yearbook.  But while whateveer relation it had to Gov. Northam personally, it could be interpreted in its superficial stupidity as also showing a possible  racial reonciliation for the long and troubled racial history of Viriginia.  This now shocking photo shows a blackfaced man standing peacefully next to somebody wearing a KKK outfit.  While indeed the obvious interpretation of  thos photo supports racism, another interpretation is of harmony among the races, even including the old southern racists of the  KKK.

Obserivng old Virginia friends of mine now confesssing their past racist behavior and  views, it seems that for them this looks sort of like the post-WW II French. After the war they were supposedly all anti-Nazi and supporters of the anti-Nazi Resistance.  But, of course, many did work for the pro-Nazi Vichy regime after the German conquest of France in 1940.  But then, as the Allies increased their obviouly ultimate victory over that regime, more nd more former collaboraters with the Vichy regime would quit and join the Risistance.  Eventually this game became a matter of timing one's switch from working for a ruling Vichy to an anti-Vichy/Nazi Resistance.

Several of my good friends now confessing their past racist conduct have put it in these terms: it has become a matter of timing, just when did one finally stop doing these bad old behaviors?  Reportedly Ralph Northam only learned two years ago that "blackfacing" was not socially acceptable.  Whatever comes out of the current crisis in Virgina, hopefully in the future we shall  have better informed and more deepl understanding leaders in Virginia and more broadly.

Addndum: 2:30 PM, 2/9/19: The VA legilslature has reportedly come to an agreement on its budget dispute.  Apparently the agreement tilts strongly towards what the GOP members favored due to the weakness of the Dems arising from these scandals involving their elected leaders in the state.  Not surpsing.

Barkley Rosser


Anonymous said...

"This now shocking photo shows a blackfaced man standing peacefully next to somebody wearing a KKK outfit. While indeed the obvious interpretation of this photo supports racism, another interpretation is of harmony among the races, even including the old southern racists of the KKK...."

What offensive idiocy, sort of like people dressing like a prisoner of Dachau and a Nazi SS camp-guard standing peacefully next to each other to show harmony.

Anonymous said...

Perfect for German school yearbook, picture of a guy with a Star of David patch sewn on walking arm in arm with a guy with a Himmler mask and SS uniform. Got harmony...

2slugbaits said...

As Barkley said, the actual facts of the Northam case are murky. I take him at his word that he was not one of the two in the photo. And I am only slightly skeptical of his claim that he wasn't aware of the photo until recently. Not everyone buys, reads or cares about their yearbook. So it really comes down the Michael Jackson blackface issue. And here's where it gets a little tricky. There's no question that a mocking kind of blackface worn by Al Jolson would be considered blatantly racist in 1984. But I'm not so sure Northam (or a lot of young whites who admired Michael Jackson) would have ever thought that what they were doing would be interpreted as racist by black Americans. After all, he wasn't trying to mock Michael Jackson; he very likely thought that he was flattering Michael Jackson by going to great lengths to imitate him. That's not to say blacks might not have been offended anyway, but is a long way from Northam having a racist intent. He might have been oblivious and unaware, but that's not quite the same thing as being an Old South racist. It's especially strange given that the black community oftentimes criticized Jackson for trying to be white.
I'm normally a pretty "PC" kind of guy, but at this point I think a lot of this "PC" stuff is starting to get out of hand. The other day I read where some were complaining about Dick Van Dyke's chimney sweep character being racist because Van Dyke wore black smut on his face. And the same with the new Mary Poppins movie. Gimme a break. Where does it end? Are we going to accuse Greg Brady of being a cultural appropriating racist because he frizzed his hair in the early 70s? Should we burn Bangles CDs because they sang about walking like an Egyptian in an 1980s song? Or boycott SNL because Jim Belushi played ethnic roles as a samurai and as a Greek restaurant owner? What about Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (and here I'm dating myself)? Should I repent for dressing like an American Indian in a Cub Scout skit when I was 7 years old? (Note: I might be okay here because, like Sen. Warren, there is a family story of a Cherokee ancestor from the Trail of Tears.) I'm currently reading a history of the Reformations and one of the big takeaways is how very trivial and hairsplitting differences in religious doctrine had way of taking on a life of their own. Things quickly hyper-rationalized into literally life-and-death issues. I'm very much of a political liberal, but that doesn't mean I am unaware of the dangers that go with unrestrained identity politics. We need to step back and put things into perspective. said...


I agree that the arugment is basicallry absurd.


It really does remain murky about that darned yearbook, what did Northam know and when did he know it, and so on. Presumably at some point it will get figured out, but maybe not. In any case, it appears that Northam's roommate knew about the yearbook page as he supposedly leaked it. Hard to believe he knew while Northam did not, but we really do not know at this point.

I think it is quite possible that Northam thought he was effectively praising Michael Jackson. As it is, one of the more absurd moments in this whole thing is how in his embarrassingly bad press conference last Saturday he at one point almost broke into a moonwalk to show how he could do it, only to be restrained fro mdoing so by his wife.

2slugbaits said...

This Northam drama reminded me of another fight about racism at a nearby university. A sculptor created an art object that depicted a klansman, which was displayed on university grounds. Except that the sculpture was clearly a strong statement against racism and the klansman in the sculpture was unambiguously evil. This caused a big fight between various groups even though all parties agreed that the statue stood foursquare against racism. The problem was that any image of a klansman was taken as offensive and threatening to minority students. The artist was shocked at the reaction and tried to explain the piece but eventually gave up and had the piece removed. I wonder if those same folks would have applauded Savonarola's bonfires of the vanities. It's sad that we can't seem to distinguish between ugly statues of Confederate traitor generals (which should be torn down) and a provocative piece of art. But we are where we are.

Anonymous said...

Barkley Rosser:

"This now shocking photo shows a blackfaced man standing peacefully next to somebody wearing a KKK outfit. While indeed the obvious interpretation of this photo supports racism, another interpretation is of harmony among the races, even including the old southern racists of the KKK...."

This is a wildly offensive passage. An apology was and is necessary.

Anonymous said...

"Reportedly Ralph Northam only learned two years ago that 'blackfacing' was not socially acceptable...."

Either rubbish or inexcusable thoughtlessness. Reportedly? said...


I remember reading something like this some years ago, but forget where it was.


You did not see that I mentioned that this line of argument is absurd? It is obviously not my position. I merely reported it was floating around with a lot of other things. I am supposed to apologize for reporting that? It is "necessary" that I do so? I am not sure which is worse, you bonoxiousness or your screaming stupidity.

As for the report on Northam, it was confirmed in a long and informative story that was the top one on the front page of today's Washington Post. For what it is worth, Northam's family was anti-racist all along in their quite racist location where he grew up in Accomack County. When schools were integrated, he was in sixth grade, and while most white families then withdrew their children from the public schools, he and his brotheer continued to attend, even though they were very much in the racial minority there. The church he attends there now not only has an Africa American minister, but is one that is solidly majority African American. Apparently it was an African American person who explained to him two years ago about the offensive nature of blackface.

So your question on that is also jusr plain silly.

In the Outlook section there is a long and informative story about the history of blackface and minstrelsy in the US, which was much more extennsive than I ever knww. It started in New York in the 1830s, but soon went south, especiallly to Virginia. It was deeply entrenched and widepspread throughout the US up until the 1960s, when African American women whose children were exposed to stories about it in the newly integrated schools protested against it. Even such figures as FDR and JFK apparently enjoyed black face minstrel shows.

An odd detail in this story involves the Elks Club, which apparently was long a vessel of racism and conservatism, haviing been founded by famous minstrel performers and long a venue for such performances into the 1960s. As late as 1870 it voted to keep blacks out and was also a hotbed of super anti-communism. I was unaware of this, although I know that where I live the Elks Club has long been a favoriet hangout of local Republicans.