Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring Now Embroiled in Racist Scandal of His Own

Even when the political consequences are severe, Democrats cannot start grading bigotry on a curve.

Five days after Virginia governor Ralph Northam apologized for allegedly appearing in an old yearbook photo of an unidentified medical student wearing blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood, and four days after Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax denied horrific sexual-assault allegations against him dating from 2004, and three days after Northam decided he wasn't in the awful photo in question—after he'd already apologized!—but admitted he wore blackface a different time, a second high-profile Democrat has copped to participating in his own bit of casual racism.

Attorney General Mark Herring, who is next in line for governor after Northam and Fairfax, admitted today that as a 19-year-old college student in 1980, he wore blackface to a Halloween party at which he dressed up as Kurtis Blow. "This 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," he wrote, days after he called on Northam to resign for the exact same thing. "It was really a minimization of both people of color, and...of a horrific history I knew well even then."

If Northam and Fairfax and Herring were all to resign, the state's constitution dictates that the speaker of the House of Delegates ascends to the executive mansion. Right now, that would be Republican Kirk Cox. If Cox were to become embroiled in his own scandal—at this point, I am not ruling anything out—the GOP-controlled House of Delegates would convene to elect a new governor, after which its members, I assume, would all go into hiding to save their careers from the Racism Final Destination movie in which they have become unwitting stars.

The state executive branch's bigotry-fueled self-immolation might come as a surprise to Americans who have grown accustomed to seeing Virginia turn blue on the Electoral College map every four years. But this week's revelations highlight what will be a dishearteningly common thread as the Democratic Party goes about the long-overdue task of cleaning house: The process is going to take a long time, especially in places with deeply problematic histories like Virginia, where even some of the purported Good Ones are likely to have done unacceptable things once upon a time. Each successive discovery will entail a new set of painful electoral consequences, and more Bad Ones will keep turning up long after weary, exhausted voters think and/or hope the task is complete.

There is an understandable temptation to question the wisdom of forcing Democrats from office for things they did a long time ago, and that very well may not—as the beleaguered politician du jour always strains to make clear—reflect who they are today. This is especially true when, as here, the party's intolerance of intolerance could lead to a Republican, for whom displays of intolerance are rarely enough to earn excommunication, ascending to a position of power. And as apologies go, Herring's is a pretty thoughtful one. (It appears he learned from the misadventures of Northam, whose disastrous press conference included a moment in which he considered doing the Moonwalk to prove his Michael Jackson fandom before his wife begged him to take another question.)

As it did when considering the fate of Al Franken, however, the party must reject this impulse. Indisputably racist behavior can only be "innocuous" to those who are not and never will be targets of racism, and parsing degrees of "youthful indiscretion" in the name of political expediency is a great way to put whatever moral authority Democrats imagine they possess well out of reach. Ralph Northam won in 2017 thanks to the support of his African-American constituents, nearly 90 percent of whom trusted him with their vote; 61 percent of women voted for him, too. Even when doing so is difficult, Democrats need to show they deserve to keep that support (in Virginia and elsewhere) if they hope to win more elections in the future (in Virginia and elsewhere).

In a party that aspires to be the one of diversity and inclusivity—the real kind, not the political bromides kind—the correct response to the discovery of flippant bigotry is not to start grading leaders on a curve. It is to look harder for leaders who don't require a curve in the first place.