In Vir­ginia, black vot­ers face a no-win sce­nario

Scan­dals are con­sum­ing top three Democrats in state

Albuquerque Journal - - OP-ED - BY ER­RIN HAINES WHACK

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.

SHELBY LUM/RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH

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.

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