Let’s Get Real About Virginia

I confess to being more than a little confused by this piece by Politico cofounder John Harris. Harris started out as a political reporter in Richmond. So it’s about the recent chaos and plunge toward the abyss in Virginia state government and the state Democratic party. As he summarizes it on Twitter, “The good old days in Virginia were bad. These days are worse…”

In other words, Virginia’s current political leaders don’t match up to the virtue and valor of those from the old days.

If you read the actual article, it’s a bit more subtle than this. But not terribly. Or not nearly enough. Harris favorably compares the more buttoned up and genteel Virginia Jim Crow era with that of the Deep South. That has a truth in it as far as it goes. The Jim Crow era was more marked by overt terrorist and state terrorist violence in states like Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama than in Virginia. The Deep South states also had substantially larger African-American populations. That made both the perceptions and reality of white power inherently more brittle. Thus the machinery of domination was, predictably, more paranoid, brutal and violent. In some ways these differences had roots in the different commodity plantation cultures from the slavery era. But these are hardly distinctions to write home about, to put it mildly.

Here’s one passage …

People outside the state might understandably conclude: Wow, as recently as 35 years ago in the home of the Confederacy the prejudice was so endemic that flagrant racism of the sort depicted in the yearbook was no big deal.

But that assumption isn’t quite right. I grew up in Upstate New York, and I didn’t begin reporting on state politics until the late 1980s. I’m pretty sure, however, that even in 1984 it would have shocked the sensibilities of many in Virginia’s political and business elite to be confronted with a photograph of the state’s governor in an openly racist pose—even if the photo was taken in 1949, 35 years earlier.

Make no mistake: Virginia does indeed have a not-so-distant past steeped in systemic racial discrimination. But as writers like Frank B. Atkinson (who wrote the political history, “The Dynamic Dominion”) make clear, for the most part in the 20th century did not devolve into open racial warfare of the sort that took place in Mississippi, Alabama and other parts of the Deep South, and which later migrated to major cities of the North. The face of discrimination in Virginia—where leaders in the 1950s and beyond engaged in “massive resistance” to avoid integrating the schools after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision—was more typically understated and shrouded in respectability. It came dressed in the well-starched suits of court house lawyers and pols for the Byrd Machine, which dominated state politics for decades, not the gaudy robes of Klansman

I’m not really so sure about this. I’m certainly not apologizing for Northam and Herring. But I think the point is, quite simply, that racism was always at the heart of white Virginia politics and that this scandal is simply a matter of the state Democratic party being whipsawed by the changing attitudes toward race, tolerance and African-American political power over the last thirty-plus years. All Northam and Herring have done is participate in behavior that may have seemed jocular in their time among their peers but now seems clearly racist in ours. (It’s worth noting that Herring’s transgression seems significantly different from Northam’s but the difference isn’t terribly important for this point I’m making.) To the extent we are comparing them to Virginia political leaders of the past, I’m really not sure that can be much of a knock on them since Virginia is literally the birthplace of the North American plantation slavery system, was the literal and spiritual capital of the Confederacy and even today gives symbolic pride of place in its capital to a statues of Confederate leaders, statues which are themselves monuments to white supremacy.

Again, I want to be fair to Harris. He makes some nods to these obvious points. But overall I think he misses or ignores them.

One of the most interesting and revealing points I’ve heard over the past week about this tangle of scandals in Virginia is this: Ralph Northam is the first Virginia governor in a generation who grew up in Virginia. This turns out to be highly significant. Warner, Kaine, McAulliffe, even Bob McDonnell – none of these guys had any connection to an earlier Virginia. For that you have to go all the way back to Jim Gilmore, who was elected in 1997.

Another way to look at it is that Virginia’s Democratic ascendancy, which basically traces to Mark Warner’s governorship, has all been with governors and senators who grew up in the North. That makes sense since the state’s change has been driven in many ways by migration into Northern Virginia. But it also meant that something like what we’ve seen over the last week or more was much less likely to happen. Northam is the first of these men who not only grew up in Virginia but has a family history going back generations. Indeed, his ancestors were slaveholders.

Northam has to answer for himself. But none of his political ancestors are in a position to judge him. To put it mildly.

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