Opinion: Column: Black or Blue: Lessons Learned from How Virginia Democrats Handled the Ralph Northam Debacle

Opinion: Column: Black or Blue: Lessons Learned from How Virginia Democrats Handled the Ralph Northam Debacle

During a 1960 speech to a mixed audience in New York City, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North which is truly liberal.” While Virginia is a southern state, it gets bluer with each election, therefore we should take heed to MLK’s words, which essentially challenges liberals to fight the gravitational pull to the right on issues of civil rights and equity. It is difficult to see both the election of Ralph Northam, his subsequent actions, and the actions of the party to protect him as anything but the party signaling to the center-right that they have their back and are willing to sacrifice a few black voters if need be.

Liberals have long sought to convince African Americans that they alone can shield us from conservative’s intent on rolling back the hands of time. And African Americans normally respond to that message, having never wavered in our loyalty for the last half century. Every election cycle we make or break elections in favor of the Democratic Party, even though for the most part we get marginal improvement in our quality of life overall, and in many measurable ways we actually regress. Our average collective net worth remains a fraction of whites, our employment rate remains half that of whites, our neighborhoods are still gentrified in the name of progress, predominantly black public schools are still underfunded, we still make up 40 percent of the nations’ incarcerated, and school administrators still consistently dole out harsher punishments to our kids compared to their white counterparts, even in districts dominated by Democratic Party leadership. A report from the Institute for Policy Studies, released to coincide with what would have been MLK’s 90th birthday, demonstrated that over the past few decades, black wealth actually fell by 50 percent.

On the other hand, Republicans haven’t presented a particularly appealing message to African Americans voters at any point during this time period either, and even less so during the Trump Administration, which uses racism and xenophobia to collect votes as effectively as any administration in recent history. However, what’s more intriguing is the possibility that Democrats like Northam view Trump’s success as a reason to shift focus on securing the white middle-class vote even if that means sacrificing some of the African American vote, or at least taking the black vote for granted. Afterall, the politics of “fear the racist Republican” is a lot easier to sell today than it was just a few years ago. This might explain why presidential favorite Pete Buttigieg felt comfortable proposing that he would undo decades of work to expand voting rights to those convicted of crimes, who are disproportionately represented by minorities.

This certainly appears to be the case in Virginia. Most of us are familiar with the controversy surrounding Governor Northam and his possible Ku Klux Klan (KKK) affiliation by now, right? Perhaps I shouldn’t assume. Maybe you were one of those that ignored the Klan member in the photograph, and instead saw this incident as a [less harmful] ‘blackface’ controversy that could be explained by innocent cultural insensitivity. But let's get something straight, this is not a blackface controversy, this is a KKK controversy. A lot of people — including the governor — would rather focus on the person in blackface because it's a slightly more tolerant form of white supremacy, and conveniently ignore the terrorist next to the individual in blackface. But the governor should not be let off the hook that easily. The KKK is America's original domestic terrorist group (despite what the laws say), having killed well over 4,000 Americans that we know of, and our governor either is or was associated with them. Let that sink in, particularly as we still mourn the loss of another group of innocent lives at the hands of other terrorist groups in New Zealand a few weeks ago, Pittsburgh, Charlottesville, and most recently Sri Lanka. The leader of the Democratic Party in Virginia has yet to offer a sensible explanation for why a terrorist was in his yearbook, and the Democratic Party is okay enough with this that they’re now openly not only defending him but trotting him out at political fundraisers.

To most the case against Northam seemed open and shut, and his resignation seemed inevitable. One would imagine that an elected official who represents the party which prides itself on its diversity, that routinely secures over 90 percent of the African American vote, and counts on that constituency to win key battleground territories in a purple state that was red just a few elections ago, would certainly recognize that defending the governor is not a hill worth dying on and step aside as quickly and as gracefully as possible.

Well we're now approaching May and not only has Northam refused to step aside, but even more unfortunate the Democratic Party has begun to rally around him in a show of solidarity. First came the slow drip of messages of appreciation from members of the General Assembly for one bill after the other on social media. Then the ridiculous Michael Jackson impersonation story that once seemed straight out of a bad SNL skit became the official party line. As for the "Coonman” nickname in his VMI yearbook that never received a formal explanation from the governor? Well one explanation floated to me by a Democratic member of in the Virginia House of Delegates — who happened to be African American — was an even greater insult to our intelligence, and full of even more racist stereotypes. According to the delegate the governor’s nickname stemmed from the fact that he had a lot of black friends due to his love of basketball.

As if insulting our intelligence wasn’t bad enough, many within the Democratic Party felt it necessary to go after those amplifying the call for the governor’s resignation. Following a protest led by the Fairfax County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at a Democratic fundraiser where the governor was scheduled to attend, Democratic Party loyalists and leaders alike attacked the NAACP for doing the very thing the organization was founded for — standing up against racism. Its members were described as "troublemakers" and "bullies"; and the nation's oldest and most successful civil rights organization is described as a "fringe element" by one party leader.

One of the talking points coming from Virginia’s Democrats is that “the governor isn’t going anywhere, so we might as well work with him.” This intentionally alleviates the burden of responsibility from the rest of the party leadership, because it makes them seem powerless, when in reality they really don't want to challenge him anyway. As the reaction to the protests demonstrated, real challenges to the governor will not be looked upon favorably by the Democratic Party. If they’ll publicly assassinate the NAACP, one could only imagine what private pressure is being placed on African American legislators who dare break ranks. This likely explains the deafening silence and acquiescence from most black elected officials on this issue.

Not enough black leaders (elected and community leaders alike) stand with the black community on principle when it matters most; and if they can't stand on principle when it comes to the KKK, when will they? If they can't break ranks with the party now, when will they? Black leaders stood next to Hillary Clinton when she called our youth “super predators”, and they stood next to Bill when he doubled down on Reagan's mass incarceration policies. We’re often told that the solution is electing more African American to office; but if this is the best they can do when faced with a such a clear-cut choice in a time of crisis, then their true value to the African American community is questionable. If these officials don’t have what it takes to tackle overt headline-grabbing racism within their own ranks, how can they be trusted to tackle systemic racism that doesn’t make headlines.