Skip Navigation

Why Most Black Virginians Don’t Want Ralph Northam to Resign

Their reluctance to see Northam step down isn’t support for him as it is a rejection of the alternate scenarios that would follow his resignation.

February 12, 2019
Cross-posted from The Guard­ian.
Virginia polit­ics is a hazy mess. Calls for Governor Ralph Northam’s resig­na­tion follow­ing the revel­a­tion that he donned black­face in college are now joined by a threat to impeach Lieu­ten­ant Governor Justin Fair­fax, who is facing sexual assault accus­a­tions. Mean­while, Attor­ney General Mark Herring, third in line for the governor­ship, has also admit­ted to wear­ing black­face as an under­gradu­ate. The removal of these three Demo­crats would cede state lead­er­ship to Repub­lican legis­lat­ors. So not only do ques­tions of moral­ity and crimin­al­ity hang in the air, so does partisan control of the state.
Amid the chaotic scene that’s attrac­ted national atten­tion, however, one group seems pretty clear-eyed about it all: black Virgini­ans.
Accord­ing to a recent Wash­ing­ton Post-Schar School poll, Virgini­ans are evenly divided over whether Northam should resign, with 47% saying he should step down and 47% prefer­ring that he remain in office. Yet, black resid­ents show the most support for Northam stay­ing: only 37% think resig­na­tion is appro­pri­ate while 58% believe he should not leave office. And among those Virgini­ans who lean Demo­crat, the black-white divide on whether he should step down is 57–49.
Why do black Virgini­ans appear so support­ive of Northam? After all, a major­ity of them were offen­ded by the black­face photo and disap­proved of his response to the incid­ent. And black polit­ical elites, ranging from the Virginia Legis­lat­ive Black Caucus to 2020 Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial candid­ates Senat­ors Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, want the governor to resign.
But in keep­ing with what we know about black polit­ical beha­vior, black Virgini­ans are neither taking their cues from politi­cians nor sacri­fi­cing the prag­mat­ism that char­ac­ter­izes the black elect­or­ate. Instead, they are seiz­ing the oppor­tun­ity to attempt the trans­form­a­tion of a racist incid­ent into a higher like­li­hood of getting their policy demands prior­it­ized – or, at least, avoid losing gains made to date.
As such, black Virgini­ans’ hesit­ancy to see Northam step down is not so much support for him as it is a rejec­tion of the altern­ate scen­arios that would follow his resig­na­tion. Should the governor resign now, the uncer­tainty around the polit­ical careers of Fair­fax and Herring suggests that the Repub­lican Speaker of the House of Deleg­ates would soon become governor. But in the 2017 elec­tion, only 12% of black voters cast a ballot for a Repub­lican governor. Accord­ingly, the surest way to ensure their vote is heeded and that a Demo­crat occu­pies the exec­ut­ive mansion is to leave Northam in place.
Further, due to a tie in a 2017 state legis­lat­ive race, Repub­lican control of the Virginia House of Deleg­ates was determ­ined by liter­ally pulling a name out of a bowl. The only reason it came to that was because of gerry­man­der­ing, which preven­ted a 9-point Demo­crat statewide win from gain­ing control of the general assembly. Black Virgini­ans, who comprise 20% of the elect­or­ate, are well aware of this since a federal court recently determ­ined that the state’s legis­lat­ive districts were drawn to discrim­in­ate against black people. The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the issue, and Repub­lican House Speaker Kirk Fox – who would become governor should Northam, Fair­fax, and Herring all step aside – is lead­ing the fight to keep the districts as they are.
Taken together, a quick look south provides a sense of what could happen should the current version of the Repub­lican-controlled General Assembly determ­ine the lead­er­ship of the exec­ut­ive branch. Black Virgini­ans recog­nize that their state may be on the precip­ice of adopt­ing the troubled polit­ics of neigh­bor­ing North Caro­lina, where a Repub­lican-led govern­ment repealed the Racial Justice Act, permit­ted the elim­in­a­tion of legal repres­ent­a­tion for poor and minor­ity clients provided by the Univer­sity of North Caro­lina, and sought to imple­ment strict voting require­ments that a federal court determ­ined was craf­ted specific­ally to “target African-Amer­ic­ans with almost surgical preci­sion.”
Compared to the sort of racially discrim­in­at­ory laws and exec­ut­ive actions that could lie ahead, black Virgini­ans would much prefer a Demo­cratic governor who wore black­face decades ago and expresses contri­tion today.
Black Virgini­ans abid­ing Northam’s tenure is also a reac­tion to the racist viol­ence and rhet­oric to which the state has a front row seat. In the lead up to the state’s gubernat­orial and senat­orial campaigns, Repub­lican candid­ates were running ads meant to capit­al­ize on racial fear and resent­ment – ads that Repub­lican gubernat­orial nominee Ed Gillespie regret­ted after losing. Black Virgini­ans, with the tragedy in Char­lottes­ville still fresh in their minds, rejec­ted Pres­id­ent Trump’s insist­ence there were “fine people on both sides” after viol­ence occurred during a white nation­al­ist march.
Captur­ing the bloc’s prag­mat­ism, one black Virginian recently told an Asso­ci­ated Press reporter that he believes there are many more state legis­lat­ors who have worn black face. “Virginia is still a racist state. It hasn’t changed much,” he said. “Look at the pres­id­ent and all he has done. I haven’t forgiven the pres­id­ent, but he’s still in office, so why should they resign?”
By reject­ing Trump-style campaign­ing and anchor­ing their pref­er­ences in polit­ical real­ism, black Virgini­ans are help­ing shape the expres­sion of, and responses to, racism in state polit­ics.
Perhaps the greatest incent­ive for black Virgini­ans’ want­ing Northam to stick around is so that he can make good on his prom­ises. High black voter turnout helped put him in office, and this black­face epis­ode further indebts him to the black popu­lace. If he has any designs on complet­ing his term, rehab­il­it­at­ing his image, and creat­ing a posit­ive legacy, he will need to deliver on black policy demands.
And it appears Northam got the memo – he intends to spend the rest of his term focused on racial equity, specially citing the need for afford­able hous­ing, mater­nal mortal­ity, more equit­able fund­ing of black colleges, removal of Confed­er­ate monu­ments, trans­port­a­tion equity, and a listen­ing tour to hear black Virgini­ans’ policy pref­er­ences. The oppor­tun­ity to make head­way on these issues is more import­ant to black Virgini­ans than penal­iz­ing Northam for a moral short­fall.
Ulti­mately, most black Virgini­ans made the prac­tical calcu­la­tion that’s char­ac­ter­istic of black Amer­ic­ans writ large: the chance to make tangible, incre­mental gains with an imper­fect politi­cian is prefer­able to exact­ing harsh polit­ical and social sanc­tions to prove a point about the unac­cept­ab­il­ity of past racist beha­vior, partic­u­larly if black interests could be further harmed as a result.
At a time when much of the state govern­ment is in flux, black Virgini­ans have been steady as ever.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.
(Win McNamee/Getty)