Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is embroiled in a serious scandal. He says he was not either of the two people in his yearbook page. They are dressed in either black face or a full Klan costume. However, admits to dressing in blackface for a dance contest around that period.
So let me get this straight, the governor said that he did not do that (dress as a Klansman, or black face), but thought it was fine to dress in blackface to dance in a dance contest, and many of the kids did it, he was not alone. Mind you, he was just graduated from medical school and was in his mid-twenties. That a kid does not make.
I know these contests were happening even in my alma matter around that time. I heard the stories from some of my far rowdier classmates and the Greek system, and admittedly I did not get the context of blackface until a couple years later after a few history classes. As a recent immigrant, I remember seeing some of the 1920s American cartoons in Mexico, and the wide world of Disney. It never registered how racist it was as I was growing up. Mind you, the imperialism of Disney, we explored in High School. This is why cultural context matters. For the record, I would not expose to modern-day children to either of these either. Teenagers, yes, but with a good discussion on the meaning of these.
However, these dance competitions were not uncommon, but admitting to not wearing blackface but he did it somewhere else, to honor Jackson, is jarring. He did not help himself with that comment. In fact, Northam made things far worst for himself. And yes, he should resign. He has led an admirable life since. He has volunteered with Remote Area Medical in the least served areas of Virginia, for example. His army experience taught him about teamwork, and he might intend very well. However, he has lost the support of his state and national party elites, and civil rights organizations. This is not the time to dig in his heels. And Army leadership should have taught him this much. It matters little what rank you have if the troops will not follow, you are done.
Which brings me to the Republican Party…
While Northam is facing increasing pressure to resign from within and outside his state. Republicans have reacted in significantly different ways to similar situations. Not only has the president embraced white supremacy, (There are good people on both sides after Charlottesville,) but Representative Steve King is still in Congress. And with Steve King, it is hardly new. He has been at this white supremacy bullhorns, for now, close to two decades, yet he still sits in Congress.
The last incident, of many minds you, led to a rebuke and the loss of his committee assignments. Yet, there were no real calls for him to step down. His party is leaving it to his district voters to do the deed.
And if this was not enough, Mitch McConnell is Senate Leader, never mind that he has received awards from organizations that have embraced the Confederate flag. Incidentally, that flag was adopted as a symbol of resistance to Brown v Board of Education. The party embraced the Dixiecrats who fled the Democratic Party after the 1965 Civil Rights Act. They have been busy, ever since, running on a southern strategy that is trying to turn the clock back to the glory days of Jim Crow days.
Incidentally, this is why McConnell reacted with such vile remarks to HR 1, that would expand voting rights of groups that Republicans tried to keep from voting for decades. In fact, the mere idea of a national voting day is horrible to the Majority Leader and a grab on power.
There is a far bigger picture to this.
Democrats have a party base that is vastly more diverse than Republicans. And yes, I have found the occasional Hispanic or African American who is also a Republican. As Representative Mia Love found out, they are treated as token figures, to show that the party is growing its diversity. But like children, they are better seen and not heard.
Republicans are far more comfortable in a monocultural party, mostly white, Christian, with a flavor of evangelical zeal. Why things like abortion have become the signature issue, together with immigration. This is one angry party. It has attracted many white working class blue collar whites over the years. There are many reasons for it, and one makes us very uncomfortable. It is not that every person voting for Republicans is a racist, far from it. But most can be said to be anxious about the changes we are seeing in society. They are afraid that they are losing their place as a dominant group, and this is called status loss anxiety.
Democrats demand that every little slight (or in this case major one) by party members come with open contrition. At times, like now, these come with demands for immediate resignation. Democrats are doing something interesting to avoid facing this status loss fear openly or our institutional racism. They are engaging in virtue signaling. They are open about it. They say, “if we don’t do that, we’ll lose the moral high ground.”
However, they do not take it much beyond virtue signaling. It is time we speak as to why Northam (and many of his generations, he was not alone,) felt comfortable wearing blackface. In fact, we have young people still doing it. And these young people act as if this is not a big deal when they get caught. However, expelling them from college will not be a good lesson. If anything, it will harden the sense of status loss. It will make them even more racist.
The insult in wearing blackface may be missed with some young people because we do not teach the context of it in school, let alone the home. You sometimes (actually most of the time) you need to wait until college, to learn the nasty bits of American history. We are not alone in this practice. Most nations teach national myths in the formative years. Why I had to wait until I got to an American college to learn of the Caste Wars Of Yucatán. We do not show those 1920s and 30s cartoons on Saturday Morning TV anymore. Those were used to normalize this, and they included plenty of watermelon eating as well. But blackface is still something you find. You also see costumes of Indian princes, and Mexican cowboys, and other ways to represent minorities. Halloween is replete with these cultural wars.
Some might miss how insulting, and replete of social codes these costumes are. However, there is a reason why blackface is insulting to African Americans. So are little Indian prices costumes, or Mexican serapes, when used as a joke on Cinco de Mayo. We must move from the outrage they always provoke to exploring, as a society, why these costumes are inappropriate. And Democrats need to stop just virtue signaling, and just demanding their own officeholders resign. It is way past time we as a nation have a conversation on this.
If we do it right, this will explode into a conversation into wealth and education inequality as well. People from multiple minority groups have not been able to accumulate wealth. Why? Things like red-lining in cities, that kept them segregated. It may not be legal anymore, but American cities remain deeply segregated, and not just in the south. Look at a map of Chicago or San Diego.
This leads to unequal access to education, which may officially not be segregated, but since we fund it through property taxes it is. It adds to the issues of unequal access to health care. It also translates to unequal access to banking services. The list is long.
Excusing the actions of young people, because they happen to be white, is white privilege. We would never excuse that stupidity from black youth, or a brown youth. Yet, we do this often. And we have had textbook examples of this double standard this year. Brett Kavanaugh is a Supreme Court justice, never mind that he engaged in behavior that would have landed young people of less privileged backgrounds in Prison. Oh and triple so if they were from black or brown backgrounds. And now we have people excusing the actions of the governor on his being young and stupid. He was stupid, I will grant you that, but at 25 the brain has completely developed. He was, however, white.
These words from Martin Luther King belong here for that reason:
*I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.*