Racism and redemption: Virginia blackface row sparks national debate

While some want Governor Ralph Northam to resign, others believe it wrong to judge him for what he did decades ago

Can a politician come back from revelations about racist behaviour in their past? What if that behaviour evoked the darkest chapters of American history, from slavery to segregation?

That is a question the state of Virginia has been grappling with since last week when its governor, Dr Ralph Northam, was caught up in a row over blackface. The 59-year-old has so far refused to resign after first admitting he appeared in a yearbook photograph showing a person in blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan robes, only to deny a day later that either individual was him.

Dr Northam's deputy has since become embroiled in a sexual misconduct row while the next official in succession for the top job has admitted to engaging in blackface in college too.

For Mr James Minor, president of the Richmond chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the episode has brought to the fore the painful legacy of the state's past.

"Blackface is dehumanising; it's evil," Mr Minor, who is black, told AFP.

Virginia was one of the most significant regions for the Atlantic slave trade, the main battleground of the Civil War fought over slavery, and later, one of the states most resistant to the civil rights movement.

In 2017, the Virginia city of Charlottesville hosted an alt-right rally that saw a neo-Nazi ram his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and wounding 28.

The NAACP's position is that Dr Northam should resign immediately, a stance shared by the state assembly's Black Caucus.

But a Washington Post-Schar School poll showed Virginians deadlocked on the issue with equal numbers for and against his resignation - and support for him staying in office higher among African Americans than among whites.


Some, like Reverend Dwayne Whitehead, the African American pastor of a church in Richmond, argue forcefully against punishing Dr Northam.

"I'm not as devastated by blackface and neither will I hold a person accountable for what they did 35 years ago, when this election for him as governor was not based upon who he was 35 years ago," he said.

"To do so, would violate any principles I have of faith that says a person cannot change."

He believes the impulse to oust Dr Northam stems from a bandwagon mentality and weakens the Democrats at a time when racial violence has spiked nationwide - linked by critics to President Donald Trump.

The blackface controversy has exploded into a crisis for Dr Northam's Democratic Party after it emerged his deputy Justin Fairfax had been accused by two women of sexual misconduct. The third-in-line to the governorship, Attorney-General Mark Herring, has since pre-emptively announced he too wore brown make-up and a wig to imitate a rapper in 1980.

Ms Jasmine Leeward, a spokesman for the New Virginia Majority progressive advocacy group, said Mr Herring's open admission of what appeared to be a "one-time incident" and the "authenticity in his approach" left more room for forgiveness. On that basis, her organisation wants Dr Northam to resign but Mr Herring to stay.

"He has been a very articulate champion of some of the issues," the 25-year-old African American said, citing work fighting for migrants from several Muslim countries when the Trump administration announced its travel ban.

"It makes the case that he has made the effort to become a very different person."

Rev Whitehead said he continued to support Dr Northam because of initiatives like a yearlong dialogue about racial justice, announced days before the blackface row.

Dr Northam has told The Washington Post he plans to dedicate the rest of his term to the same cause. - AFP