By Bill Mefford
Living in Virginia this week has been a wild ride. We found out this past week that our Governor, Ralph Northam, first admitted that he was in a photo in his medical school yearbook (and who knew medical schools even had yearbooks?) of someone wearing blackface standing next to someone dressed as a KKK member. Then, by the weekend, he recanted that he was in the photo, but he did admit he wore blackface for a dance competition in San Antonio (not sure why that stood out for me, but it did) when he did the moonwalk imitating Michael Jackson. One of the reporters asked him if he could still do the moonwalk and after looking around to see if there was room beside the podium for him to do it, his wife wisely stepped in and told him no.
This in itself would make for quite a week, but as calls for Northam to step down began to cascade in (especially after his bizarre news conference where he called for dialog between blacks and whites because, according to Northam, apparently members of BOTH races have been hurt by racism which should be news to most of the African American community). This week we have heard about a credible accusation of sexual assault against the Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax from 2004. Most unfortunate, Mr. Fairfax has hired the same law firm to defend him from these accusations that Brett Kavanaugh used. Something tells me this is not going to just fade away. The accuser deserves to be heard.
Then, while things are still waiting to see how that situation evolves, the third in line for the governorship in case both Northam and Fairfax eventually step down, is Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring. Just a day or so ago, Herring preemptively admitted that he also wore blackface at a fraternity party in college in the early 80s. What the hell is going on! I was alive and kicking in the 80s and I have done some incredibly stupid stuff (especially in the 80s), many things I am not proud of and that I know have hurt people, but honestly, it never ever crossed my mind even one time to wear blackface. I can relate to general stupidity, but this seems to go way below the already very low bar I grew up with in North Texas.
So, what would happen if all three top leaders decide to step down (which they won’t)? The fourth in line is the Speaker in Virginia’s House of Delegates, who is a Republican. And do you know why the fourth in line is a Republican even after a historic Democratic electoral sweep in the 2017 state elections where Democrats got close to 60% of the state vote but were not able to take over the state legislature? Because Virginia is gerrymandered to disenfranchise Black voters and to ensure Republican majorities.
I gotta tell you, racism is everywhere. It shapes every aspect of our society and if you can’t see it then you probably wore blackface in college.
So, while Northam is fighting to stay in office with everyone calling for him to step down I find myself asking a difficult question. It is this: what happens when he steps down? Meaning, what is improved or changed once he steps down? Is Virginia suddenly cured of racism with him removed from office? Of course not. And so, at this point I need to preface that I think Governor Northam absolutely should step down, but I also know that him stepping down does not really do much besides send an alert to all ambitious and aspiring college student members of the Young Democrats to put away their shoe polish.
I am in no way saying Northam should stay, but I am asking what we gain as a society and as a faith movement fighting against racism with him gone. In other words, I think we should ask for more. If having President Obama in office did not solve issues of racism in this country then having people like Ralph Northam out of office doesn’t solve issues of racism either. It might even serve to anesthetize ourselves to future acts of racism by our leaders because we think we have effectively dealt with it. .
Simply put, I would like to humbly suggest something, but before I do so I want to acknowledge that being a white man I do not know in any way the deep hurt and real violence caused by these horrific images. With that said, I want to suggest that the pursuit of liberation should require leaders like Northam, Herring and others something more than merely stepping down. Stepping down for Northam is way too easy. He obviously needs some intense education on the history of the harm that blackface has caused and then some guided reflection on why he and so many privileged white people have thoughtlessly and stupidly made these choices. Something tells me that if Northam, Herring, and others had grown up more immersed in relationships with people of color, their choices would be drastically different.
Thus, our calls for Northam should, I believe, be as focused on what he needs to do to address his racism as they are about simply getting him out of the headlines. Once again, I want to stress this does not mean Northam should stay in office. I honestly do not believe he should. But I think there is something more than his ousting that liberationists should care about. We should care about his liberation.
Whether it is the privileged students from Covington Catholic standing in the face of Native American elders, or Northam and Herring wearing blackface in college, or any number of other daily acts or statements that trump or his Republican buddies in Congress say or do that are deeply racist or xenophobic, our calls to them as liberationists must consist more than eagerly waiting for their punishment. We should aim higher. We should call for their liberation. Something tells me they would prefer the punishment to the steps to liberation because punishment is far easier. However, in laying out a call to repent from our individual and collective racism and to immerse ourselves in relationships with people of color so that those of us who are white people can begin to more adequately understand the harm we have caused and continue to benefit from, we are effectively laying out a vision for a compassionate society. Living into compassion is far more beneficial than simply getting rid of politicians.