Dan Rattiner's Stories

Blackface Again: Ralph Northam, Mark Herring, Gucci and Others

All sorts of people are saying they wore blackface. What gives?

It’s been two weeks since The Virginian-Pilot published a photo that showed a young man in blackface standing next to a man wearing a white-hood KKK outfit in the medical school yearbook of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, from 35 years ago. After apologizing, Northam said the next day that neither of these costumed students was him. He hadn’t seen this page before, nor, he said, recalled taking the photo. Republicans demanded he resign. So did Democrats. He said he would not, and so far hasn’t.

Next, a college professor, Vanessa Tyson, accused Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who’d be next in line if Northam resigns, of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago. She’s hired the same law firm as the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault 30 years ago. Another woman, Meridith Watson, who works with nonprofits today, subsequently accused Fairfax of raping her 19 years ago when both were at Duke. Fairfax denied the allegations. Again, Republicans demanded the Governor resign. Democrats not as much. The reason is that if both Northam and Fairfax step down, then the new Governor would be Mark Herring, the Attorney General, who is a Republican. However, Herring now says that, years ago in college, he dressed up in blackface with a friend to go to a party as Venus and Serena Williams.

1977 US Al Jolson
1977 US envelope with Al Jolson in blackface from “The Jazz Singer,” Photo: konstantin32/123RF

Since then, other people in public office have confessed to wearing blackface at parties and other social events when young, mostly when they were in college. Also, a number of fashion houses have withdrawn clothing that they think might be construed to be something endorsing blackface or racism. They include Gucci, which pulled a black balaclava sweater that covered the lower half of the face with a hole for a mouth, and Prada, which withdrew a monkey-like bag charm that many say suggested blackface. On the issue of race, Dolce & Gabbana, Newsday reported, issued a video apology in response to one of their designers making insulting remarks about Chinese runway models in a private chat. But Dolce & Gabbana nevertheless was forced to cancel a Shanghai runway show.

Governor Northam says he will use the opportunity afforded by the blackface controversy to change his agenda to focus on race. (Lieutenant Governor Fairfax is black.) His administration has been working to liberalize Virginia’s partisan redistricting laws that blunt African-American voting power. He has also expanded Medicare in his state, pressed for affordable housing, small business procurement, education and income tax reform. He’s landed Amazon’s Southeast headquarters.

But the pressure is on him to resign because of that yearbook photo. Perhaps Northam and Fairfax’s only way out is to announce that while Governor, or Lt. Governor, they will run for President and/or make themselves available for the Supreme Court—following in the footsteps of Trump, Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas, all similarly accused but still standing.

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