Political Scientist: Blackface Is a National Problem & Virginia’s Top Officials Must Step Down

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A reckoning about racism and sexual assault has left Virginia’s government in disarray, with the state’s top three elected officials—all Democrats—facing political crises that threaten to upend their careers and the state’s leadership. The controversy that has enveloped Virginia since Governor Ralph Northam admitted last week to wearing blackface took a shocking turn Wednesday, when Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface at a college party. Just days prior, Herring—who is second in line for Virginia’s governorship—had called for Governor Northam to resign. The first in line, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, is also embroiled in scandal after a woman who’s accused him of sexual assault came forward Wednesday with details of the encounter. Governor Northam has refused to step down since a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page emerged featuring a man wearing blackface posing next to a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. If all three of the Democratic politicians resign, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox is next in line to become governor. We speak with Khalilah Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, who is from Lynchburg, Virginia, and a graduate of the University of Virginia. Her forthcoming book is titled “Identity Politics in the United States.”

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Virginia, where a reckoning about racism and sexual assault has left the state government in disarray, with Virginia’s top three elected officials—all Democrats—facing political crises that threaten to upend their careers and the state’s leadership. The controversy that’s enveloped Virginia since governor Ralph Northam admitted to wearing blackface last week took a shocking turn Wednesday, when Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface at a college party. Just days prior, Herring, who is third in line for Virginia’s governorship, had called for Governor Northam to resign. The second in line, Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, is also embroiled in scandal, after a woman who has accused him of sexual assault came forward Wednesday with details of the encounter.

Governor Northam has refused to step down since a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page emerged featuring a man wearing blackface posing next to a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam initially apologized for the yearbook photo but later said he was not either of the two men in the photo; however, he did admit to wearing blackface on another occasion that same year. If all three of the Democratic politicians resign, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox is next in line to become governor.

AMY GOODMAN: Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring resigned from his role as co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association Wednesday, after admitting he wore blackface at a party in the 1980s as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. In a statement, Attorney General Herring said he wore brown makeup and a wig to impersonate the rapper Kurtis Blow. He wrote, quote, “That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others. It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then,” he said.

Just hours later, the woman who accused Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of sexual assault came forward. She identified herself as Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor at Scripps College in California. In a statement, Professor Tyson detailed a 2004 encounter at the Democratic National Convention in Boston where she said Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him. Tyson said, quote, “What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault. … To be very clear, I did not want to engage in oral sex with Mr. Fairfax and I never gave any form of consent. Quite the opposite,” she said. Lieutenant Governor Fairfax has denied her account of what happened, saying, quote, “I have never done anything like what she suggests.” Fairfax had previously implied Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s supporters might be behind a smear campaign to prevent him from assuming the governorship.

Well, for more, we go to Raleigh, North Carolina, where we’re joined by Khalilah Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. She’s from Lynchburg, Virginia, and is a graduate of the University of Virginia. Her book is titled Identity Politics in the United States; it’ll be out later this year.

Professor Khalilah Brown-Dean, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you just respond to what’s happening in Virginia, the place where you went to college?

KHALILAH BROWN-DEAN: It’s a really chaotic situation in my home state. I have a lot of family there. Virginia is near and dear to me, and it always will. But what’s happening right now is forcing people to really decide how much progress has been made in that state, whether it’s what’s happening at the University of Virginia, its long history of tension over issues of race and racial representation, or the latest allegations against the lieutenant governor. And it’s more than just about political party; it’s really about how the state continues to govern and move forward.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve also said, Professor Brown-Dean, that a lot of the history of Virginia has been entirely forgotten, and that’s part of the reason that these kinds of incidents keep surfacing. Could you elaborate on what that history is?

KHALILAH BROWN-DEAN: I grew up in a place called Lynchburg, Virginia, where those kinds of barriers, both physical barriers and perceptual barriers, were very real. My hometown had a number of public swimming pools. And after new legislation meant that those public spaces had to be integrated, instead of allowing black and white children to swim together, the city filled the swimming pool with dirt, and later with concrete, so that no one could be able to swim. There were entire school districts in the Commonwealth of Virginia that shut down for over a year rather than complying with the mandates of the Brown v. Board of Education decision to mandate integration of public schools.

But we don’t even have to go back that far, to the 1950s and the 1960s. This is a state where, two years ago, a group of white supremacists converged on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, chanting, with tiki torches, “We will not be replaced.” So, that history, from the founding of the Commonwealth of Virginia to these more recent instances, show that issues of race, issues of discrimination and outright violence continue to be paramount.

AMY GOODMAN: The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and civil rights groups have called on Governor Northam to resign. On Wednesday, the NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson said Attorney General Mark Herring should also step down. Johnson was speaking on MSNBC.

DERRICK JOHNSON: For African Americans, that is domestic terrorism. That is the symbol of domestic terrorism. It’s familiar to those of us who live in the South. It’s something that should not be tolerated. And for both Northam and the AG, they have admitted to participating in this activity. And for that reason, we stand by our position: They should resign.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson. Professor Brown-Dean, if you can respond to what he’s saying? Do you also think they should resign? And talk about the history of blackface and what it means.

KHALILAH BROWN-DEAN: Symbols are powerful. I spent yesterday at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, and there is a poignant display there about the history of blackface, the ways in which theater performers used these exaggerated caricatures of black people to communicate not just their inhumanity or to deny their humanity, but to also convey stereotypes about blacks as being lazy, as being ignorant, of being lackadaisical and just happy to go around singing and dancing. That is damage, because when you make an entire group of people seem less than human, when you deny them the protections of citizenship, you create a situation where violence can fester, whether that is physical violence, whether that is the neglect of educational opportunities or inequality in the criminal justice system.

I think it’s good that AG Herring has admitted to his wrongdoing, but admitting to that does not mean that he shouldn’t be held accountable to not just his constituents, but to, really, the people that look to him for fairness as attorney general. They both need to step down. But beyond that, we need to start having real conversations and actions about blackface, about racial imagery. This isn’t just a Virginia problem. This is a national problem.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, there’s a long tradition, as you suggest, of U.S. elected leaders participating in or promoting blackface. This is a clip of Ronald Reagan introducing a white performer in blackface in the 1943 film This Is the Army.

JOHNNY JONES: [played by Ronald Reagan] “Mandy” number ready. Lights.

CPL. RALPH MAGELSSEN: [played by Ralph Magelssen] [singing] I was strolling out one evening by the silvery moon
I could hear somebody singing a familiar tune
So I stopped a while to listen

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s a white performer in blackface in the 1943 film This Is the Army, being introduced by Ronald Reagan. So, Professor Brown-Dean, can you elaborate on this, on this history, and how it’s gone, largely, ’til now, unremarked upon?

KHALILAH BROWN-DEAN: I think it depends on who you’re asking about whether it’s remarked upon. You know, Spike Lee has a film called Bamboozled, where he traced the history of blackface, the ways in which blackface was used by performers of a number of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. To some extent, it was a way of them distancing themselves from the kind of discrimination that they faced. But it also was a very clear social indication of the boundaries of inclusion.

So, yes, you have Ronald Reagan introducing this performer. You have Ted Danson appearing at the Friars Club in blackface. And every year on college campuses, those of us who teach young people hold our breaths during Halloween and hope that someone is not appearing in blackface in a costume or posting on their Snapchat or Instagram some sarcastic remark that is actually dangerous because it undermines that safety. Look, people can learn, they can grow from those mistakes. They can become more aware of history. But that growth should not come at the expense of public safety of people of color in this country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, it seems especially relevant, Professor Brown-Dean, that this is all unfolding in 2019, which is the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia. But you’ve said, as you suggested right now, that this is not just a problem of Virginia, it’s a legacy that is all over the U.S. and is manifest in different ways. Could you talk about that?

KHALILAH BROWN-DEAN: Sure. And, you know, it’s the 400th anniversary, as you said, of enslaved Africans arriving on the shores of Virginia. We’re also in the middle of Black History Month. And what I think is dangerous is that too often people are willing to say this is a problem of the South. You know, I live in the Northeast, and I often tell people it’s really just “Up South.” People in the South may be more vocal about their views. They may be more direct in that. But we should not think that this kind of racial ignorance and racial animus is beholden to Southern boundaries.

At the museum I was at yesterday, they showed me a picture of a cross burning. And as people, you know, stood around this cross in their Klan hoods, that picture was taken in 1984 in Connecticut. So the same time that you see Governor Ralph Northam appearing in blackface, you know, in terms of his college picture, this is happening, the cross burnings, the racial imagery, the very clear boundaries of exclusion. Many of the ways that people targeted white ethnic immigrants in the North, coming from places like Ireland and Italy, that same kind of boundary gets replicated across the U.S. and has not been erased, even if people stopped talking about it.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, at the same time that all of this is unfolding, an old photo showing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell posing in front of a large Confederate flag has resurfaced—the photo first circulated in 2015—when he is getting some kind of honor from the Sons of Confederate Veterans event in the early 1990s.

But I want to turn right now to the second-in-command, the second-in-charge, in Virginia. On Wednesday, a woman accused Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of sexual assault—the woman who accused him of this came forward. She identified herself as Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor at Scripps College in California. In a statement, Professor Tyson detailed a 2004 encounter at the Democratic National Convention in Boston where she said Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex. Tyson said, quote, “What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault. … To be very clear, I did not want to engage in oral sex with Mr. Fairfax and I never gave any form of consent. Quite the opposite,” she said. Well, speaking to reporters, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax denied the sexual assault allegations.

LT. GOV. JUSTIN FAIRFAX: That allegation is completely false, as was indicated in our statement. And if you read through the story, you’ll see it’s completely uncorroborated. And the fact that they would run a story on an uncorroborated allegation, from now 15 years ago, tells you exactly what this smear is all about. And so, we have laid out our facts in our case. In fact, this person, a year ago, came to The Washington Post with this very same allegation. They investigated it for several months, and then they made the decision not to publish the story because it was not credible, because it was uncorroborated. And what we know is that it’s false and defamatory. And so, this person then went into hiding and laid low in the weeds, and then, the second that this issue popped up here in Virginia and there’s a lot of media attention, crops back up with the same false allegation and uses others to get it out into the mainstream in the media. But what I know is that the truth is 100 percent on our side.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax denying a sexual assault took place. Professor Khalilah Brown-Dean, you know the accuser. Is that right?

KHALILAH BROWN-DEAN: I do, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk to us about Professor Tyson and her allegations? Have you spoken to her about them?

KHALILAH BROWN-DEAN: I have not spoken to her about this particular incident, in terms of the latest coverage. What I do know is that she is a very reputable person. She is a tremendous scholar. She has a remarkable record, not just as a professor, but as an advocate and a public servant, decades of that record of advocating on behalf of victims of sexual violence and also understanding how public policy can support people.

What I also know is that this is a very difficult situation for everyone involved. There are no winners here. There are two families, at least two families, that are forever changed by this.

And what I also think is important is that if you are going to be a public servant, you have an obligation to be accountable to the people that you are chosen to serve, and to allow the process to proceed with integrity and with a real genuine commitment to this. This shouldn’t be about political party. It shouldn’t just be about people we like or politicians that we want to ascend to higher office. It’s really about what is the principle, what is the standard, and how do we promote the best interests of the people of Virginia, without creating sacrificial lambs in the meantime.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, do you believe that he should resign, Lieutenant Governor Fairfax, in the wake of these allegations?

KHALILAH BROWN-DEAN: I think he should resign. I think it is impossible for him to govern effectively with this cloud hovering over him and hovering over his administration. While we are dealing with the governor’s blackface pictures, while we are dealing with these allegations against Lieutenant Governor Fairfax, there are people in the Commonwealth of Virginia who are suffering because we are not addressing the very real public policy concerns that are happening. Virginia is being hit with the opioid crisis. Virginia is trying to figure out how to properly educate students in public schools. There are issues around criminal justice reform and making sure that people are safe and also have access to a fair and just process. So that the interests of the people of Virginia can be served and government can do what people elected it to do, that resignation should come.

AMY GOODMAN: You must the reeling, Professor Brown-Dean. This is—you are a daughter of Virginia. Can you just talk about your overall response and what you think Virginia needs to do to move forward? If all three men are to step down, the House speaker, the head of the House of Delegates, who is a conservative, anti-choice Republican, will then become governor.

KHALILAH BROWN-DEAN: I am saddened by what’s happening in my home state. I am disgusted by what’s happening in my home state. But I am far from surprised. I’m a proud graduate of the University of Virginia, and I’ve always known that tension between being on a campus that, you know, was created by Thomas Jefferson, this wonderful American statesman, knowing that the ground that I walked on every day contained the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved Africans, that while he was penning these wonderful words to our founding documents, he was holding people in the bondage of slavery and refusing to emancipate them. That is the history of my home state, and it affects everything that is happening.

What I am most concerned about right now is that this has become a partisan witch hunt—or that’s the perception. Look, we need people in office who respect their voters. We need people in office who uphold the values and beliefs that we want children in the commonwealth, and really across the country, to grow up and emulate. I am less concerned with who will ascend to the office of the governor, and I am more concerned about what the impact will be on the day-to-day lives of people that I care about, given that so much of my family is still in Virginia. I don’t think that these three highest-ranking officials will all resign on the same day. So, if the concern is about maintaining the balance of power that the voters wanted—and that was a Democratic-controlled executive office—then there are ways to appoint people into those positions in an acting role until the voters can really have a say.

AMY GOODMAN: Khalilah Brown-Dean, we want to thank you so much for being with us, associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. But she is from Lynchburg, Virginia, and a graduate of the University of Virginia. We look forward to reading your book, coming later this year, Identity Politics in the United States.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the former housekeeper of Donald and Ivanka Trump speaks out. She was undocumented, she was at Bedminster, and she says her bosses helped cover up her legal status. Stay with us.

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