In the days since a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook was published, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has resisted calls for resignation from all corners of his party. The Democratic caucuses of both branches of the Virginia state legislature have asked Northam to step down, as have Northam’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, and multiple Democrats who’ve announced 2020 presidential runs. Yet Northam has refused to do so, arguing that he shouldn’t have to because he is neither the person in the photo in blackface nor the one in KKK garb. He did, however, improbably volunteer that he wore blackface for a Michael Jackson costume that same year.
Northam is the second prominent Democrat in the past few years to be asked to resign following revelations of past bad behavior. In late 2017, Democrats urged then–U.S. Sen. Al Franken to step down after he was accused of groping several women and kissing women without their consent. (Franken, who contested some of the allegations, resigned after the eighth woman came forward.) Both cases come on the heels of a broader cultural movement to hold people accountable—or, more colloquially, to “cancel” people—for past racist, sexist, or predatory misbehavior. In the short term, this amounts to bouts of humiliating chaos. To wit, the current situation in Virginia is that the blackface-wearing governor would be succeeded by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who said of a woman who accused him of sexual assault, “Fuck that bitch.” Were Fairfax to resign, he would be succeeded by another guy who wore blackface. (That’s what they call a Virginia sandwich!) So, yes, chaos. But in the long term, a commitment among Democrats to “cancel” politicians with a history of cruel behavior is essential to rebuilding a strong, sustainable party.
There should be no room in American politics for Northam’s apparent comfort with racist lampoonery, including his old nickname “Coonman,” which appeared in another yearbook. Neither should there be room for a senator who jokingly mimes grabbing a sleeping woman’s breasts, as Franken did. And yet, when considering the current discrepancy between how the two major political parties handle this problem—Republicans defended Roy Moore, for example, and Steve King is still in Congress—the double standard can rankle some Democrats who don’t feel ready to take a hard line. When Franken left the Senate, his supporters protested that Dems couldn’t afford to lose a strong progressive leader in the Senate. Even now, Democratic donors are boycotting Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a 2020 presidential contender, for leading the successful charge for Franken’s resignation. Likewise, some believe an apology for a 30-year-old dalliance with blackface should be enough to keep Northam in office, a position that is only likely to be more strongly argued now that the misbehavior of his two successors has come to light. (If all three resigned, a Republican would get to take the governor’s seat.) In a poll taken in the two days after the blackface photo was made public, 50 percent of Virginia Democrats still said they approved of the governor.
It’s easy to explain why the Northam revelations are grounds for immediate expulsion from public service: Holding political office is a privilege that should be reserved for those who, at the very least, do not show blatant contempt for wide, race-specific swaths of the American population. Keeping racist people—or people with racist histories—in office is demoralizing and insulting to communities of color that already suffer the bulk of state-sponsored violence, voter suppression, and mass incarceration. When these racist people do hold positions of power, it’s easy for their racial biases to bleed into policy, even in the political party less committed to stoking white racialized fear and anger than the other.
By turning against men like Northam and Franken, Democrats accomplish far more than any single left-leaning politician with a tarnished reputation could. They decline to tacitly condone actions that evoke long, painful histories of racist and gender-based violence. They set a precedent for what’s expected of leaders in their own party, and they possibly even make it more difficult for members of the other party to shrug at similar instances of racism and sexual misconduct. They also help shore up the Democratic Party’s reputation among the young voters, women, and voters of color that make up the party’s base and future.
Even though ousting a politician is undoubtedly the right move, it’s a remarkably new phenomenon. Democrats are getting marginally better at taking action in response to public disclosures of disgusting behavior, but the party is certainly exercising a new muscle (remember the ranks that closed around Bill Clinton?). Republicans, meanwhile, seem to be getting worse. Across the country, the party has been running candidates flaunting increasingly blunt and unabashed brands of racism. Candidates who style themselves in the Trump mold are winning. Federal judges appointed by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump are arguing—in literal opinions and dissents—that calling a public official or government entity “racist” is worse than actually being racist. When multiple women accused then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault and harassment last year, Republican leaders led a defense of the judge that ramped up from accusing Ford of misremembering (or lying) to reasoning that sexual assault is a normal, unobjectionable rite of passage for teenage boys. More recently, conservative bigwigs are pulling out all the stops to convince the Senate’s one black Republican, Tim Scott, that he is contributing to “racial polarization” and precluding “racial healing” by refusing to vote in favor of a federal judicial nominee who worked to disenfranchise black voters in North Carolina.
Against this backdrop, removing a few gropers and blackface-wearers from public office feels like ridding an overflowing septic tank of one single turd. Plus, the new commitment to accountability seems like it’s hurting the one party that is at least trying to do the right thing. Republicans demanding Northam’s resignation—like those who called for Franken to step down in 2017—seem to be using these occasions to score political points. Northam’s history of racist mockery was revealed by conservatives motivated by his support for abortion rights. That doesn’t make it any less racist, but it does suggest that some Virginians see racism as a tool for discrediting political opponents—depending on the party of the perpetrator—rather than an urgent social ill. Last year, Virginia Republicans nominated literal neo-Confederate Corey Stewart as their Senate candidate in the 2018 midterm election, and 41 percent of voters in the state cast their ballots for him. While one party wrings its hands over propriety, ethics, and injustice, the other is essentially arguing that since everyone’s racist and sexist, accusations of racism and sexism are nothing more than disingenuous political cudgels. Look no further than Trump, accused of sexual assault, deciding to bring Bill Clinton’s accusers to a presidential debate to see this dynamic in action.
This doesn’t mean the Democratic Party will be perpetually forced to sacrifice as Republicans continue to behave with despicable impunity. But it’s a necessary catalyst of the party’s current period of change. As my former colleague Jamelle Bouie wrote in December, the 2016 presidential election pitted a racist white man against a white woman who had to vocally disavow racism—in a way Barack Obama never did—in order to win the voters of color that made up her party’s base. This brought white Democrats with “conservative racial views” who voted for quiet-on-race Obama over to Trump’s side, leaving the Democratic voting contingent less white and male than before. This could help explain why Democrats made the recently sworn-in Congress the most racially and gender-diverse one ever, even as the number of female and nonwhite Republicans in the legislature fell. And in a single election cycle, it seems, the slate of Democratic presidential candidates went from being mostly white and male to mostly … not.
There are lots of reasons to want to elect more women and people of color, from getting the best-qualified people into office to having legislative bodies that fully represent the constituent communities they serve. Avoiding the shame of realizing your Democratic governor dressed in blackface and spent the next 30 years ignoring it could be another. The pre-nomination vetting process for Democratic candidates should become stricter in response to the meltdown we are currently witnessing in Virginia. But this shouldn’t be taken as an insurmountable obstacle: As luck would have it, the party has a diverse surge of new would-be candidates ready to fill the vacuum left by sexual abusers and minstrel performers. Of the potential political stars out there who haven’t groped women, a disproportionate number are women. Of those who haven’t engaged in racist mockery, a disproportionate number are people of color. You know who didn’t think dressing up as a KKK member was funny in 1984, or ever? Black people. An increasingly nonwhite and female Democratic Party will eventually tire of electing people who claim they’ve repented for a former ignorant worldview. They’ll want leaders who never had the privilege of such ignorance in the first place.
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