Virginia Exhausts Last Gasps of Democratic Racism
February 7, 2019
By Arturo Castañares / Publisher and CEO
In the past five day, two of the top politicians in Virginia have become entangled in battles for their careers brought on by overt acts of racism.
First, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam publicly admitted on Monday that he was one of the two students in a 1984 medical school yearbook picture that shows two students, one dressed in a KKK outfit and the other in blackface and minstrel-style outfit.
Although he didn’t admit which outfit he wore, both were clearly racist.
The next day, however, he recanted his admission and now says he isn’t in the picture, but he admitted he did dress up in blackface that same year for a dance contest where he imitated Michael Jackson, and even did the moonwalk.
Oh, like that’s any better.
Within hours, Democrats from within and out of Virginia called for Northam’s resignation, including just about every 2020 Democratic candidate for President.
One of the first to call for his resignation was Virginia’s Attorney General, Democrat Mark Herring, a 57 year-old originally from Tennessee.
But by Wednesday, Herring too admitted to having dressed in blackface at a party while we was in college in the 1980s when he and his friends impersonated famous black rappers of the day, like Kurtis Blow, he said.
Democrats were aghast that some of their very own would have committed such racist acts, even if it happened years ago. Many argued that, by the 1980s, everyone knew wearing blackface was wrong and these smart, college-educated Democrats should have known better.
As of today, both politicians are still resisting calls for their resignations and both appear ready to fend off attacks as they try to explain their transgressions.
But their pasts shouldn’t be shocking because they merely exposed the troubled history of the Democratic Party when it comes to racism.
Today we all think of Democrats as progressives on issues of race, gender, the environment, and social programs. Republicans, on the other hand, are considered conservatives that have mostly opposed progress in these areas.
History, though, should remind us that, not too long ago, the roles were reversed, and Democrats are still living with the ghosts of their past.
From the inception of the Democratic-Republicans by Thomas Jefferson in 1792, “Democrats” were opposed to a large central federal government, and over the next 60 years, defended slavery as an attack on the freedom of landowners.
The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was seen as an existential threat to the Democrats in the South, and led to the Civil War under the guise of defending their states’ rights to manage their own affairs, namely slavery.
After the Civil War, Democrats still controlled most Southern states and voted overwhelmingly for every Democratic presidential candidate up until the election of Harry Truman in 1948.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, later supported by Truman, had moved Democrats toward a more liberal agenda, support of large government programs, and opposition to segregation, which finally caused a break among more conservative Democrats.
In 1948, southern Democrats created the States Rights Democratic Party and nominated then-South Carolina Governor Strum Thurmond as their presidential candidate. After their defeat that year, most returned to the Democratic Party, but they still resisted the progressive movement.
The watershed moment came after the passage of the Civil Rights Act championed by John F. Kennedy and ultimately signed by Texan Lyndon Johnson in July 1964, which guaranteed equal rights to all Americans, regardless of race.
In response, Southern Democrats voted in large numbers for Republican Barry Goldwater, a social conservative that had opposed the Civil Rights Act as an overreach by the federal government. Goldwater only won his own state of Arizona, and the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
From the on, the South, in general voted, for Republican candidates for President, including Richard Nixon and later, Ronald Reagan. The South had become Republican.
But in some southern states, including Virginia, the transition for some Democrats has not been as painless as in other states. California and other western and northern states don’t have the complex histories of slavery, segregation, and reconstruction.
Virginia, after all, was the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, and, although it has recently turned from red to purple to blue in its voting, it still has a troubled history of race relations.
Charlottesville, Virginia, the site of the clash between white supremacists and protesters in 2017, is only a few miles from Appomattox, the site where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to end the Civil War, and close to the state Capitol in Richmond.
Which leads us back to Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring.
These white men, born in 1959 and 1961, respectively, grew up during the last decades of the transition of the Democratic Party from conservative to progressive. They surely heard racial jokes, stereotypes, and attitudes that were still commonplace in the South, and frankly, in most of America, at the time.
Governor Northam has eluded to his own evolution; he admits he voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 before he himself ran for office as a Democrat in 2007, though he now says he regrets those votes. Northam argues he has changed.
The truth is that the Democratic Party, too, has come a long way from its days of supporting slavery and, later, segregation. Its evolution to the party of inclusion has come with growing pains, and as we’ve seen this week, has left scars.
What both Ralph Northam and Mark Herring did in the 1980s was wrong and are clearly signs of the attitudes of that time, but they should also be judged by their work and deeds during their careers.
Whether their political careers survive this crisis should be up to the votes that elected, not political observers indirectly impacted by the outcome.
But what we should all acknowledge is that Northam and Herring are clear examples of how far our country has come in just 50 years. They were raised in a country that doesn’t exist anymore. Civil, voter, and equal rights laws have transformed us into a more perfect union during their lifetimes.
Clearly work must still be done because some last bastions of institutional racism continue to exist, but the fact that two middle-aged white Democratic politicians from a southern state are caught up in this mess should be a learning experience.
Northam and Herring should have come clean with their pasts before they were outed as seemingly closeted racists; instead, they had to react to the shocking revelations because they had hidden their clearly embarrassing actions hoping they would never be exposed.
So, they missed an opportunity to educate us all on how the South, and the country as a whole, has moved closer to the ideals we aspire to.
Republicans have no moral authority to chastise these offenders; they have made excuses for Donald Trump, Steve King, and many others in their own party that have made racist remarks, yet they have repeatedly failed to hold them accountable.
It’s up to Democrats to police their own in a productive way. Simply banishing Northam and Herring is too easy. This is a teachable moment.
Racism is not yet dead, even within the Democratic Party, and certainly not in all corner of the country.
Only by confronting that truth can we all move forward, together, with liberty and justice, finally, for all.