Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has helped the country kick-off Black History Month with yet another difficult conversation about race.
At issue was the surprise revelation of a photo from his page in his 1984 medical school yearbook, featuring a man dressed in blackface, another dressed in a Ku Klux Klan uniform. Which one was he?
On Friday night, Northam issued a video claiming responsibility for the image and apologizing. But on Saturday, he held a press conference to share a different story. After reflection, he decided he was neither man in the photo, though he confessed to being guilty of some other blackface shenanigans. During the same era, he may have darkened his skin to perform as Michael Jackson at a dance competition. If not for his wife, Northam seemed prepared to moonwalk for the reporters as proof.
It was painful to watch unfold.
“In some ways, my personal history mirrors that of this commonwealth,” Northam said on Saturday. “There are actions and behaviors in my past that were hurtful. But, like Virginia, I have also made significant progress in how I approach these issues,” he said.
It’s also the kind of history which makes the festive racism evidenced by not one but two blackface photos in his yearbook possible.
It’s worth noting that the yearbook in question was compiled by adults who were also highly trained medical students. On the subject of progress, the math is fairly straightforward for skeptics – if you’re unprepared to see the racism while yukking it up at a kegger, you’re unprepared to see the racism in a health system that consistently delivers substandard care to people of color.
It’s also worth noting that blackface has an unusually problematic history in Virginia.
Rhae Lynn Barnes, an assistant professor of American cultural history at Princeton University and author of a forthcoming book on the history of blackface and minstrelsy, tackles the subject in this must-read opinion piece.
Amateur minstrel shows were an important way to reinforce the status of white people who felt under siege after the Civil War ended. “[The shows] featured fictionalized blackface slaves and their Klansman counterparts — a pairing on display in the Northam photo — to sustain Virginia’s infrastructure and segregated economy, as well as to inculcate new generations into a form of white supremacy associated with collegiality, school spirit and patriotism,” she writes.
Minstrelsy is so deeply embedded in the University of Virginia’s history, for example, that their yearbook is called Corks and Curls, named for the burnt corks used to darken faces and the curly wigs used to mock African American hair. (No, I’m not kidding.) The yearbook, founded in 1888, was discontinued for financial reasons in 2008. It has since been resurrected, name and all, by the school’s alumni association.
So, in 2017, it was an echo of an ugly past when white, clean-cut types brought burning torches, hate speech, and deadly violence to the UVA’s backyard to protest the removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Northam ran against a candidate who was known for inflammatory and racist rhetoric; it was this tension that Northam was, in part, tapped to combat.
Now, nearly every Democratic operative and elected official has asked Northam to step down. I think he should take those calls seriously. Not that he doesn’t deserve grace. He does. Not that he shouldn’t be allowed to evolve. He should. Not that he doesn’t still have a role to play in public life. I’m sure he does.
But the photos, the blackface, and the culture that permitted them should have been fodder for meaningful conversation long before now. Northam’s tortured reversal this weekend indicates to me that he’s not yet fluent in the language of race and reconciliation. And we need people in power who are.
Should Northam step down, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax is poised to take his place. Fairfax is currently the only black official serving the state, and the second African American elected to statewide office in Virginia.
He’s also been a quiet model for truth-to-power integrity. He took his oath of office with a copy of the manumission documents that freed his ancestor, Simon Fairfax, in his breast pocket. And, he politely and unabashedly sat out the state’s annual Robert E. Lee tribute.
There’s a political element behind the revelation of the photos, so I’ll leave the horse race talk to others. But from a leadership perspective, one thing is clear: Personal evolution never comes at a convenient time.
I know that there are plenty of people who are not sure if there is a photo of them waiting to surface, grinning and surrounded by the corked and curled, everyone in on the joke. At some point, I guess, racism becomes old-fashioned wallpaper that people forget is there.
But papering over the good old days has led to a painful present, and an overdue conversation about who gets punished in school, who gets put into prison, who survives childbirth, who succeeds in corporate environments and who can be a governor. Joining these inconvenient and uncomfortable conversations is part of everyone’s job description.
White parents aren’t letting their kids play football anymore The game has long been sold as a character-building exercise, a place where rambunctious boys can learn teamwork, earn scholarships and get fit while staying out of trouble. Except now…brain damage? There were nearly 7 percent fewer student-athletes participating in youth-tackle football in the 2017-2018 season, and it’s increasingly upper-income kids from white families who are opting out. This divergence paints a troubling picture of how economic opportunity—or a lack thereof—governs which boys are incentivized to put their body and brain at risk to play,” explains Alana Semuels. The Atlantic
How companies fail black and brown employees Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has published a good recap of the clear reasons why black and brown workers flounder in non-inclusive work environments. She cites ineffective policies around diversity and inclusion, noting that vague standards benefit white leadership who may be uncomfortable with conversations about race. Shuttling “diversity” hires into low-ranking positions with little hope for advancement means they’re more vulnerable during lay-offs and unlikely to contribute meaningfully to the development of new inclusive norms. She offers several remedies, all of which require holding managers accountable. “[T]he companies that made the most advancement towards changing their workforces were those HBR
How a Chicago woman created a team of volunteers to help the homeless during the polar vortex It’s an inspiring story, made sad for how necessary it was. Candice Payne, armed with a credit card managed to rent 30 hotel rooms for more than 100 vulnerable people who were in danger of freezing to death during Chicago’s recent sub-zero weather. Then she put out a call on Instagram for help. What followed next was a team effort which included transportation, cash donations and supplies for care packages, including prenatal vitamins, toiletries, and snacks. Restaurants donated food. Others started renting rooms. “I am a regular person,” Ms. Payne told The New York Times. “It all sounded like a rich person did this, but I’m just a little black girl from the South Side.”
New York Times
A federal detention facility in Brooklyn, NY went without power and heat for days As a crowd of protestors gathered outside, panicked prisoners banged on windows, and screamed for help. A series of elected officials toured the facility reporting increasingly dire conditions, including an asthmatic man lying on the floor without a working inhaler, trying to suck air from under the gap in the door. The facility houses some 1,600 incarcerees, many of whom are still pre-trial and have not been convicted of a crime. Hearings on emergency bail applications begin today. The jail has been on lock-down since an electrical fire knocked out primary power on January 27. The Intercept
The Woke Leader
Keeping the faith on Twitter
Since our last reader survey, I’ve been trying to keep an eye out for more resources to share that explore faith – in society, at work, and at the intersection of race and ethnicity. For those looking to add expert voices from a variety of perspectives, I found this list from the Englewood Review of Books, a quarterly book review from the Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. This post recommends theologians and ethicists to follow on Twitter; to my eye, it appears to be a diverse list of thinkers who are engaging publicly with some very challenging topics on race, gender, poverty, politics, and exclusion. Not all center their work on Scripture, but some do. There’s also a ready-made Twitter list to follow, and some thoughtful additions in the comments. Englewood Review of Books
Journalists don’t cover neglected communities until they explode, and that’s the problem In a thoughtful essay, journalist and anthropologist Sarah Kendzior links the systemic neglect of poor and majority non-white neighborhoods like Baton Rouge, St. Louis, Flint and Milwaukee with an unwillingness of the media to cover the bigger issues that underlie dramatic events like riots and fires. “They come for the chaos. They don’t stay for the banal brutality of the time in between, the slow erosion of opportunities that structure daily living.” Quartz
True confession: I have diversity fatigue Juliette Austin is a diversity and inclusion specialist who shares what can happen when you think about race and culture change for a living. You hit a wall, often at unexpected times. The cumulative pressures from the constant, and often mildly insulting, conversations can get overwhelming. Her prescription is rest, and her story is a good reminder.