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.