In Virginia, black voters face a no-win scenario
Scandals are consuming top three Democrats in state
RICHMOND, Va. — Eva Siakam’s choice to campaign for Ralph Northam in 2017 was a simple one: He was a Democrat and endorsed by Barack Obama, America’s first black president.
But sitting in a stylist’s chair at Supreme Hair Styling Boutique in Richmond on Friday, she shook her head in disgust when asked about revelations that Northam wore blackface as a medical student 35 years ago.
“I really believed in him,” said Siakam, a 28-year-old student. “To find out that he dressed up in blackface is disappointing. He’s shown his disdain for black people.”
Black voters who factored prominently in the 2017 election that helped Northam become governor are feeling betrayed over the scandals that have engulfed the state over the past week, leaving them with a less-than-ideal set of choices at the top of the Democratic Party: a governor and attorney general who wore blackface and a lieutenant governor who stands accused by two women of sexual assault. The next person in line for governor is a conservative Republican.
Many are struggling to come to grips with a list of nagging questions: Do they forgive the Democrats, keep Republicans out of power and demand the governor get serious about racism? Should Northam step down and hand the office to African-American Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who faces sexual assault allegations? Or should all three of them walk away and let principle prevail, even if the other party takes charge?
The dilemma was being weighed in black barber shops, salons, restaurants and living rooms and in activist and political circles across the state in the midst of a still-unfolding reckoning around race and scandal in the Old Dominion.
“We don’t even know where to take the conversation from here,” community organizer Chelsea Wise said at a meeting of Democrats in Richmond on Thursday. “Do we want to address all of them, or are we just sticking with Ralph right now? The fact that it’s all of our top leadership shows that we need to take a hard look at the Virginia Democratic Party as well.”
The governor has been facing calls to resign ever since a photo emerged from his medical school yearbook page in 1984 that showed someone in blackface next to a person wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam later admitted wearing blackface and impersonating Michael Jackson around the same time. Days later, Fairfax was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2004, and Attorney General Mark Herring came forward to admit that he, too, wore blackface in the 1980s.
As of Friday night, Northam informed his cabinet that he was determined to stay in office, Herring remained in a wait-and-see posture, and Fairfax had denied a second accusation of sexual assault, this one from a classmate at Duke University who said he raped her in 2000.
Siakam said she thinks Northam should resign, but said the conversation must now turn to the larger impacts of racism on communities of color.
“There’s nothing you can do for us to forget, but we should focus more now on structural racism,” she said.
African Americans, who make up 20 percent of Virginia voters, overwhelmingly supported the commonwealth’s top three Democrats in 2017, in large part as a repudiation of what they saw as the racist rhetoric and policies prevalent in the 2016 presidential campaign and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville just months before the election. Both Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring campaigned heavily in black areas, and were given entree into many communities by local officials, faith leaders, business owners and regular citizens.
Wise said she had reservations about Northam’s commitment to black communities during the election, but supported him anyway and was prepared to hold him accountable amid a racially divided national climate.
“We knew Trump had just gotten elected and we needed a Democratic governor in Virginia, especially because of the importance of the state in national elections,” Wise, 34, explained. “I almost felt like I couldn’t question him because of the urgency add the importance of what we just had on the national level.”
Wise said she felt betrayed by Northam’s revelations, particularly because he remained silent about his own past after the events of Charlottesville.
Zyahna Bryant of Charlottesville holds a sign at a protest last week after racially charged photos surfaced from Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook.