Things got somewhat interesting here in Virginia recently, after it came out that an unambiguously racist photo was published in our governor's medical school yearbook in 1984. It shows two people, one in a KKK hood and one in blackface (we don't know which one was him). In keeping with the state of politics more generally, it apparently only came out after some classmates brought it to the attention of some media outlet due to being annoyed over another recent controversy on late-term abortion.
I'm very much in the "we should allow people to change" camp, and am not a fan of breaking out the pitchforks if it can be avoided. Once a [bad thing] does not mean always a [bad thing]. Northam's situation is a tough one, and unfortunately requires a little more nuance than public discourse is capable of. He has apologized, but is also insisting that the picture isn't of him. According to the Post, those around Northam have described the initial apology as taking responsibility for it being on his page. They're also describing someone who's still somewhat politically naive, and who's struggled to deal with not being trusted and being thrown to the wolves so quickly by the Democratic Party.
It is disputed whether someone else's photo could have ended up on Northam's page, and some of Northam's classmates have defended him by saying they never saw him wear or say anything offensive. One black classmate, Dr. Walt Broadnax (described as "one of the few" black students at the school then) said:
- There is no way anyone would tolerate someone going to a party in blackface. If I had known about it then, it would have been an issue.
He also said that he believes Northam's statement that he wasn't in the photo. Northam has so far remained in office, despite numerous calls to reign.
As if that weren't enough, our Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, was accused of sexual assault right around the time that this was happening. Fairfax himself has pointed out the timing. Some conservative blog first published the Northam photos on Friday, and then the following Monday has a Facebook post by a woman that refers to an assault but doesn't mention Fairfax by name. There's been some definition battles since, as Fairfax has tried to characterize a Washington Post investigation as finding "significant discrepancies" in her story. The Post says that part isn't true, and instead describes what happened after the woman went to them in November 2017 (after the election) thus:
- The Post, in phone calls to people who knew Fairfax from college, law school and through political circles, found no similar complaints of sexual misconduct against him. Without that, or the ability to corroborate the woman’s account — in part because she had not told anyone what happened — The Post did not run a story.
I form no opinion on whether her accusations are true. And to be clear, I find the publishing of this Facebook post on Monday to be suspicious, not her going to the Post shortly after Fairfax was elected. Meanwhile, in both cases the motivations behind those pushing the story matter in some contexts, but don't necessarily affect the underlying issues. In other words, the people pushing these stories clearly have political motivations, but that doesn't automatically mean that what those stories are saying is untrue.
At this point, I don't really know what I think. Northam's actions from what I can tell are consistent with both someone who thought he had to take responsibility but who values his own honesty and someone trying to backpedal and/or cover things up and doing it poorly. Fairfax's outrage may be genuine and may be anger at finally being called to account for something. We've so poisoned our own well when it comes to those in power that it's really difficult to parse what's going on, or to trust anyone involved one way or the other.
EDIT: VA's Attorney General, Mark Herring, has come out and admitted that he wore blackface once to a party in college in 1980, when he was 19. Folks seem less outraged by this one, although whether that's due to specific knowledge and history and more a political hedging of bets (since #4 in line for governor is a Republican) remains to be seen. h/t to tacocat for letting me know.