Virginia Democrats’ ‘blackface’ and sex scandals
Virginia’s statehouse was in chaos this week after Gov. Ralph Northam defied fellow Democrats’ demands to resign over a racist photo in his medical-school yearbook, while his possible successor, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, denied an allegation he’d sexually assaulted a woman in 2004. The next in line for the governor’s office, Attorney General Mark Herring, confessed that he had worn blackface as a 19-year-old college student in 1980, when he dressed as a rapper for a party. “It’s a mess,” said Democratic state Sen. Lionell Spruill. Northam, 59, initially apologized for appearing in the photo on his 1984 yearbook page, which shows a man in blackface standing next to someone in Ku Klux Klan robes. He didn’t specify which costume he was wearing. Northam backtracked the next day, saying he wasn’t in the photo. But he did confess to wearing blackface that same year to portray Michael Jackson at a dance contest.
Democrats in Virginia and across the country quickly called for Northam to resign, including most declared 2020 presidential candidates, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both of Virginia’s U.S. senators, and the Congressional Black Caucus. Meanwhile, Vanessa Tyson—a politics professor at Scripps College in California—released a statement in which she accused Fairfax of assaulting her at a hotel during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. A self-described “proud Democrat,” Tyson said Fairfax forced her to perform a sex act as she “cried and gagged.” Fairfax called the allegation a “smear” and said the encounter was “100 percent consensual.”
What the editorials said
“Northam must resign,” said The Virginian-Pilot. He ran for governor in 2017 on the promise of providing a steady hand and being “the adult in the room.” Northam now looks anything but. His blackface shame was no childish indiscretion: He was 24 when the yearbook was published, and should have known the get-up’s connection to Virginia’s ugly racist past. If Northam wants to help heal those wounds, he should do so away from the governor’s office.
Whether Northam is telling “the truth hardly matters,” said The Wall Street Journal. “For Democrats, racism has become the default charge for any GOP policy they dislike on crime, immigration, education, the environment, you name it.” And so the Virginia governor must be sacrificed to preserve the weapon for use against other Republicans. Northam might want “Democrats to show mercy now for errors of his youth, but that isn’t the Democratic Party that made him governor.”
What the columnists said
Democrats have no choice but to show “zero tolerance,” said Domenico Montanaro in NPR.org. To claim the moral high ground in the Trump era, they simply can’t afford to accommodate racially insensitive politicians such as Northam, or those accused of sexual misconduct, such as former Sen. Al Franken. Many Republicans have joined Democrats in calling for Northam’s ouster, said Charles Sykes in TheBulwark.com. But how can the GOP muster the chutzpah after Roy Moore, Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, and Charlottesville? If they “can swallow accusations of pedophilia, sexual assault, and sympathy for white nationalism,” what gives them the right to now “suddenly develop scruples over a photo” from 1984?
The furor over Northam’s photo says a lot about where our culture stands on matters of mercy, said Ben Shapiro in NationalReview.com. Let’s be honest: “Northam did something reprehensible 35 years ago,” but then lived a “professionally and personally meritorious life.” Does that not count? Is repentance “simply not possible in our outrage culture”? The answer would seem to be decidedly no—and that’s a tragedy for a civilization founded partly on the notion of repentance as a means of “self-betterment.”
Maybe we could forgive Northam if he appeared genuinely sorry, said Matt Ford in NewRepublic.com. But he has displayed a “Trumpian lack of shame,” and is even following Trump’s survival strategy from the Access Hollywood scandal. Trump admitted to serial sexual assault in that tape, but resisted Republican calls to step aside as the GOP nominee during the closing weeks of the 2016 election. “He now sits in the Oval Office.” Northam believes that such stubbornness will also help him cling to power. “His lack of civic virtue is no less disqualifying than the scandal itself.”
Getty, AP, courtesy of Candice Payne