(This article is cross-posted at Medium.)
By now you’ve probably heard the story about Virginia governor Ralph Northam, and how a photo in his medical school yearbook — from 35 years ago— showed two people in costume: one in blackface, the other in a Klan robes. Northam made a public apology about it, then oddly walked back his apology, saying that he was neither of the people in the photo. At the same time, though, he admitted that he had that same year dressed up in blackface as Michael Jackson for some sort of contest. It was an odd admission to an offense that hadn’t even been discovered yet, but probably to get ahead of it, just in case someone dug up a picture of that event, too.
Within moments came the chorus of condemning voices from Democrats, pundits, and activists from the “left” (whatever that really means these days) calling for Northam to resign. Resign. Listen, I am the the last person to defend anyone’s racism, be it obvious or subtle, as any of the 2-4 whole people who ever read my blog will attest. However, it does strike me as a bit extreme to demand that a person resign from a very powerful position because of something idiotic they did more than three decades ago. Why does the power of the position matter, you may ask. Because it has become an issue of political priorities.
Shortly after the Northam scandal broke, allegations of sexual assault surfaced about Lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax — who would succeed Northam if he resigned. These allegations, to me and I would imagine anyone, are far more serious than someone appearing in blackface. Not too long after that, Virginia attorney general Mark Herring — second in the line of succession to the governorship after Fairfax — admitted to also dressing up in blackface back in 1980. I guess blackface was all the rage in Virginia back in the 80s?
This rapid-fire sequence of breaking scandals created a crisis for Virginia, as calls rang out for all three men to resign. But herein lies an additional complication. If they were to do so, the man third in the line of succession is Virginia is the Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirkland Cox. This is significant because Northam, Fairfax, and Herring are all Democrats, while Cox is a Republican. It brings into question the priorities of the Democratic party, because is it truly more important that these three men resign as penance for offenses committed or alleged, even if it means a complete shift in the balance of power in Virginia? Even if it means that the governorship will be taken over by a man with truly troubling political positions that have translated directly into his votes on policy?
Let’s for a minute say that, in the worst case, Northam is actually lying, and that he is the person in blackface. Or the person in the Klan robes. I’m actually not sure which would be worse. Both of these images evoke an American history — and present — that has been very harmful, and very painful for black people. A history that devalued, dehumanized, and diminished us. And in Virginia, of all places, pretty much the epicenter of American slavery. The symbolic power of the image is not lost on me, I assure you, but it is still only symbolic. I don’t say that to imply that symbols don’t matter, because they hold great power. I say that because as powerful as symbols are, they do not have the same impact as policy on the everyday lives of black people. The symbols of blackface and the KKK represent an American history during which national policy remanded us to the status of livestock, and after that, third-class citizens. At no time would anyone be able to argue that blackface minstrelsy was more damaging than Jim Crow. Or that dressing up as a Klansman was as harmful as government complicity in the murderous and destructive actions of actual Klansmen.
I am not saying any of this to defend Ralph Northam’s actions, even if his only offense was allowing such a hideous photo to be posted on his yearbook page. But this is bigger than Northam, and Fairfax, and Herring, because if all three men were to step down, Virginia would have a new governor, in Kirk Cox, who almost certainly would harm black people on a far more than symbolic level. A quick look at how he has voted on various issues reveals a man who is staunchly anti-choice, which is especially dangerous at a time when Roe vs. Wade is under regular attack, with perhaps the only thing holding it in place being Chief Justice John Roberts, suddenly the “moderate” voice on the court. I could write another whole blog post — and many articles have already been written — about the disproportionate impacts of anti-choice legislation on women of color, and massive disparities in reproductive health in general.
Cox’s record also reveals a man who has supported voter suppression efforts — via voter ID laws — which are nakedly aimed at further disenfranchising black voters. You wanna talk about history? How about the fact that for most of American history black people were regarded as three-fifths of a person, our bodies counted toward representation in the House, and bolstering the power of slaveholders, while our actual voices remained silenced? How about the fact that for another hundred years after slavery, we were still not allowed to vote, and for years after that, we were terrorized and killed for daring to exercise that right once we had it? The current voter suppression efforts in states like Virginia are an extension of that same system of oppression and disenfranchisement. Are Democrats and other voices on the left really willing to cede power to a man who would undoubtedly continue that legacy?
This whole saga was started when the far-right publication Big League Politics dug up the old yearbook picture. Do you figure their motive was to call out Northam’s racism, or to cause the exact sort of chaos that Virginia is dealing with now? They probably couldn’t have anticipated that their effort might lead to a complete toppling of Democratic power in the VA executive branch, and allow a Republican to assume the governorship. Why should Democrats and left-wing commentators play right into their hands?
This whole Virginia drama is revealing something important about the current Democratic establishment, which has implications for both past and future, including the election of Donald Trump. Democrats are symbolic politicians, concerned more with the image of doing the right thing, than actually doing it. Where they effect policies that actually make a positive difference in people’s lives, it is usually reactive, a case of them “holding the line” against the worst abuses of the Republicans. They have rarely advanced bold legislation that challenges the status quo, and even when they have, they rarely maintain enough power, or enough solidarity among themselves to see it through. They are beholden to the same corporate interests as the GOP, support the same neoliberal hyper-capitalist policies at home, and imperialist policies abroad.
They have been so indistinguishable in substance from the GOP, insofar as their actual impact on regular people’s lives, that it didn’t seem much of a leap for those who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Presidential primary to vote for Trump in the general election. Much like the poor whites in so-called “Trump Country”, many on the left knew they just didn’t want more of the “same”, the maintainers of a status quo that sees so many people struggling, jaded, and hopeless. Democrats’ inability to understand this, or perhaps refusal to act on it, is why Hillary Clinton lost, and why any middle-of-the-road Democrat is likely to lose if they are put up against Trump in 2020
Democrats are riding so stiff and proud on their high horses as they sneer down at Ralph Northam, but what has been more damaging to the black people they symbolically defend? A photo in a yearbook from 35 years ago, or 35 years of benign neglect at best, and at worse, complicity if not command over the institutions and systems which have caused great harm to our communities? Like the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. The Democrats’ near-unanimous insistence that Northam resign is nothing but a platitude to convince everyone that they are the “not racist” party, quite different from the anti-racist party, — which they most certainly are not.
Let’s take a look at some of the more prominent names calling for Northam’s resignation. Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Kamala Harris has quite a troubling record with respect to criminal justice, during her tenure as California attorney general, upholding and reinforcing the sort of policies that have disproportionately impacted communities of color. Senator and 2020 candidate Cory Booker has in the past been a little too cozy with Big Pharma, and evenly recently appears to be an advocate for the expansion of charter schools, which has proven disastrous for public schools, mostly attended by students of color.
Hawaii house representative and 2020 candidate Tulsi Gabbard has a troublesome anti-LGBT history, and seems to be oddly chummy with right-wing leaders like Syria’sBashar Assad, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and India’s Narendra Modi. Senator and 2020 candidate Kirsten Gillibrand made it a point to own up to her conservative past, which wasn’t all that long ago. And don’t even get me started on Hillary Clinton, the white queen of neoliberalism, whose moral duplicity, and overall weakness as a candidate helped usher in the Age of Trump.
With the new crop of Democratic lawmakers, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar, we see the potential for a party actually bringing about substantive change. With the unveiling of the Green New Deal resolution by Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, we see the first whispers of massive, systemic change, in response to the some of the greatest problems we face as a country, and in the world: climate change, systemic racism, neoliberal destruction of the economy. These need to be the priorities of the Democratic party, and while the 2020 Presidential hopefuls have put their seal on approval on the Green New Deal resolution, it seems a gesture of convenience, of sensing the direction of the wind, of symbolism.
Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has belittled or dismissed the Green New Deal resolution, while also reassuring her corporate friends in the health insurance industry that she has no intention of challenging their dominion. Still, she made sure to hop on the bandwagon calling for Northam’s resignation.
These mainstream, centrist, milquetoast Democrats, regardless of their newly minted progressive stances, have made careers out of “compromising” with the Right, capitulating to corporate interests, merely “holding the line”, when the lives of Americans hung in the balance. On a policy level, they have either caused or allowed real, quantifiable, harm to black people in particular. These same Democrats hem and haw and hedge and hesitate over whether or not to impeach Donald Trump, a man with a long history of racism, and who is not only openly racist at present, but fuels the resurgence of white supremacy through his words and deeds. Yet they come out in force against Ralph Northam over a picture in a yearbook from 35 years ago.
It needs to be stated that Northam himself is one of the same middle-of-the-road Democrats I am criticizing here. He is no progressive hero. But he has, at least, like many of those calling for his resignation, held the line. He voted against the anti-choice and voter suppressing legislation supported by Kirk Cox. If we are going to talk about compromise, maybe the Democratic establishment needs to compromise in its hard-line sanctimony, its hypocritical moralism, especially if their current course will lead to a reversal of the progress they claim to stand for. The weight of such regression will, as it always has, be carried disproportionately by black people. The same black people Democrats continue to court for votes through empty rhetoric and symbolic gestures, rather than a serious commitment to systemic change on a policy level.