‘Why We Can’t Wait’ on Virginia

Governor Northam’s handling of the fallout following discovery of his yearbook page featuring two people in blackface and KKK costume is a national crisis for all elected leaders in America

Every state in the union has some strategy that speaks to “inclusion” and/or “racial equity.” Yet, these welcome words ring hollow in the wake of the crisis unfolding in Virginia. Although many have offered rote rhetoric reprimanding the governor and calling for his resignation, such responses belittle the issue and relegate it to a personal problem. The reality is Northam isn’t the problem. He is a symptom of a systemic issue that infects America.

The consistent complaints of black Americans, from 1868 to today (150 years after a 14th amendment and a war waged by white supremacists against a multicultural society and Inclusive America), continue to be dismissed by media, politicians and others as unfortunate independent circumstances that are episodic rather than systemic.

The knee-jerk reaction to Northam’s public relations nightmare is to denounce the deplored action and the individual caught committing it. I would prefer politicians recognize and address historic and systemic racial issues embedded within the psyche of our nation, which was built upon a bedrock foundation of white supremacist ideology and white political and economic power balanced upon the fulcrum of exploiting black people.

It is apparent that in many social circles of white America, the exploitation of black people throughout history serves as a tool for mockery and ridicule, thus belittling the enormity of evil committed by white Americans upon generations of black people.

OPPORTUNITY

A golden opportunity exists across the nation today for each governor and mayor to stand up and issue a personal statement about how they intend to address the systemic issue of widespread ignorance of America’s history of white supremacy, which has led to broad acceptance of mockery of the black American experience in many communities in white America.

It is insufficient for black Americans alone to be outraged at onerous behavior by white Americans, particularly the ugly behavior of those wealthy, white influencers operating in America’s educated elite arenas of society who participate in mocking disenfranchised people subjected to laws, policies and practices exercised by white Americans in positions of power and influence.

RESPONSIBILITY

It is incumbent upon white leaders at every level to establish societal boundaries around racial issues and enforce them.

If this week ends without America’s governors and mayors, educators and clergy, speaking out passionately, and with committed resolve to address systemic racial inequity problems in their own regions and circles of influence, yet another inadvertent message will be sent to black citizens (and other Americans of color) that underscores a widespread ignorance (and willful ignorance) around the issue of race in America.

WILLFUL IGNORANCE

Gayle King’s interview with Governor Ralph Northam on Feb 10 can be summed up in two words: “indentured servants.”

These ignorant words that Northam used to describe centuries of the evil system of American slavery is yet another unforgivable sin made in the wake of Northam’s college yearbook scandal wherein two people appeared on his page in blackface and a KKK costume.

How does Northam et al justify the idea that black people from different countries and tribes, purchased on their own continent of Africa for the purpose of slavery and sold at the point of sale on the continent of North America into slavery, is somehow equivalent to indentured servitude?

RECYCLED HISTORY

The unmistakable dual demons of White Ridicule and White Terror targeting black Americans on Northam’s college yearbook page were initially addressed by the governor as a mistake of his youth. He then corrected his first response by claiming he was neither of the two people featured on his yearbook page (nor did he offer the identities of either).

Northam doubled down against calls for his resignation by appearing in an interview with Gayle King this past weekend in which he blithely referred to the arrival of the first African slaves into the Virginia colonies as “indentured servants.” It doesn’t help that his own state attorney general also had to admit that he, too, had mocked black Americans by appearing in blackface.

No one seriously believes this sort of behavior is limited to Virginia.

Such widespread mockery of black Americans among white Americans isn’t innocent nor funny. It is systemic, serious and catastrophic.

This slow train wreck has to stop. Immediately.

UNACCEPTABLE

Northam said in his video:

“I am deeply sorry. I cannot change the decisions I made. Nor can I undo the harm my behavior caused then and today. I accept responsibility for my past actions. And I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust.”

Whoever wrote Northam’s statement has a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue. His statement is simply untrue.

Governor Northam (and all other governors) absolutely can undo the harm his (and others’) behavior has caused. The only question is whether he is serious about the “hard work” necessary to do so and committed to doing it regardless of his political power and stature. Northam’s statement ought not be tied to, nor dependent upon, his political future.

SYSTEMIC

Please note: Governor Northam’s blackface scandal unveiled a systemic problem affecting the whole of the nation, not just high society white Virginians. Unfortunately, the governor’s attempt to explain his actions further exacerbated the problem, which again, are systemic.

KEY NOTE

Has any black leader in the history of America ever referred to African slaves as “indentured servants”?

AMERICA’S PROBLEM

How is it that a white governor of Virginia could make such a faux pas unless it is an accepted paradigm in his circles of influence and associations? And how is it that a collective groan did not rise up from the nation’s ruling elite? How is that every presidential candidate did not address the issue itself and assume responsibility for leadership, not merely to denounce Northam’s tragic circumstance?

To be sure, Northam isn’t the first white person to dilute the extraordinary evils of centuries of slavery in America. Acknowledgement of this point suggests a deep-seated problem exists nationwide that must be addressed through education at all levels in society in every state.

METAPHOR

Virginia’s resurgent crisis in race relations is a metaphoric problem facing the nation. We are still engaged in a covert political battle over America’s Civil War and Reconstruction, an overt dilution of MLK’s “Negro American Revolution” 100 years later, and a continued whitewashing of our nation’s confederate history and ongoing white supremacy across the socioeconomic strata occurring today.

The federal government once understood the gravity of the polar opposite positions between progressive-minded white and black Americans who sought change, and conservative-minded whites who sought to maintain the status quo. The clash of these two ideals would determine the future for children of those seeking civil and economic justice. The war that had raged from 1863’s emancipation of slaves to 1963’s nonviolent direct action revolt against segregationist policies and practices, which protected white supremacy, was heading toward a crescendo as the rumblings of a Negro revolution were heard loud and clear by the executive branch.

The first chapter of the Department of Labor’s published 1965 report was titled: “The Negro American Revolution.” Here’s an excerpt from the introduction and first chapter:

In this new period the expectations of the Negro Americans will go beyond civil rights. Being Americans, they will now expect that in the near future equal opportunities for them as a group will produce roughly equal results, as compared with other groups.
This is not going to happen. Nor will it happen for generations to come unless a new and special effort is made.
There are two reasons.
First, the racist virus in the American blood stream still afflicts us: Negroes will encounter serious personal prejudice for at least another generation.
Second, three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment have taken their toll on the Negro people.
The harsh fact is that as a group, at the present time, in terms of ability to win out in the competitions of American life, they are not equal to most of those groups with which they will be competing. Individually, Negro Americans reach the highest peaks of achievement.
But collectively, in the spectrum of American ethnic and religious and regional groups, where some get plenty and some get none, where some send eighty percent of their children to college and others pull them out of school at the 8th grade, Negroes are among the weakest.
The most difficult fact for white Americans to understand is that in these terms the circumstances of the Negro American community in recent years has probably been getting worse, not better.
Indices of dollars of income, standards of living, and years of education deceive. The gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening.
Chapter I. The Negro American Revolution
The Negro American revolution is rightly regarded as the most important domestic event of the postwar period in the United States.
Nothing like it has occurred since the upheavals of the 1930’s which led to the organization of the great industrial trade unions, and which in turn profoundly altered both the economy and the political scene. There have been few other events in our history — the American Revolution itself, the surge of Jacksonian Democracy in the 1830’s, the Abolitionist movement, and the Populist movement of the late 19th Century — comparable to the current Negro movement.
There has been none more important.
The Negro American revolution holds forth the prospect that the American Republic, which at birth was flawed by the institution of Negro slavery, and which throughout its history has been marred by the unequal treatment of Negro citizens, will at last redeem the full promise of the Declaration of Independence.
Although the Negro leadership has conducted itself with the strictest propriety, acting always and only as American citizens asserting their rights within the framework of the American political system, it is no less clear that the movement has profound international implications.
It is clear that what happens in America is being taken as a sign of what can, or must, happen in the world at large. The course of world events will be profoundly affected by the success or failure of the Negro American revolution in seeking the peaceful assimilation of the races in the United States. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. Martin Luther King was as much an expression of the hope for the future, as it was recognition for past achievement.
It is no less clear that carrying this revolution forward to a successful conclusion is a first priority confronting the Great Society.

CONSEQUENCES

Governor Northam’s approach to this seminal moment in history is problematic. Each day that goes by with black people correcting the record (as Gayle King did in real time during her interview with Northam) while white leaders issue statements that, at best, appear ignorant of the actual history of the nation, is a further deepening of the chasm that is driving a racial wedge into our national politics heading into the 2020 presidential election.

At worst, the failure of white leaders across the nation to stand up and correct the record in Virginia … to admit serious systemic problems exist and commit to resolving them … continues to mock the horrors of slavery, dismiss the legal segregationist era of Jim Crow, and ignore today’s ongoing segregationist policies and practices, inherited from the past, that have expanded due to neglect.

NATIONAL CRISIS

Virginia’s crisis is a national crisis.

If Virginia, the home and heartbeat of the Confederacy, the birthplace of American slavery, the staging ground for a modern-day uprising of white supremacist extremists and the current metaphoric capital of America’s racial identity crisis, cannot establish a leadership role in guiding America toward a path of Racial Truth & Reconciliation and a visionary ideal of an Inclusive American society that resonates nationwide, who else can be expected to do so?

HISTORIC

Still, the nation cannot wait for Virginia to lead, particularly if it is unable to do so.

No elected leader should wait for the outcome of Virginia’s political crisis to be resolved. This is not an issue of politics. It is an issue of America’s historic race relations writing yet another explosive chapter. We are writing that chapter today for future generations to study.

ADVICE

My advice is that Governor Northam should not say another word to the media without a comprehensive strategy to overcome this public relations nightmare and national crisis. That strategy should include a committed investment in permanent educational and economic infrastructure that leads to a resolution of deep-seated systemic challenges that Virginia and the nation writ large have ignored for the last 150 years, since the day black Americans were born in the summer of 1868 with the announcement of a 14th amendment to the constitution.

WE CAN’T WAIT

Relating to Dr. King’s iconic book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” no governor anywhere else in America should wait on Virginia.

Now is the time for every governor to stand up and establish in their own state a public declaration of a commitment to building an inclusive state that leads to the building of an Inclusive America. Educating the masses is a necessary first step.

Segregationist policies and practices inherited from the past have, by design, kept large segments of white America in the dark about the darkest eras of American history. Sadly, we continue to carry with us those demons who wreak havoc today.

COMMITMENT

Ideally, both major political parties would commit openly and repeatedly a resolve to “Building an Inclusive America.”

Those declarations could include political strategies (at every level: local, regional, state and federal) to advance real policy measures of economic inclusion with equitable infrastructure and pathways to prosperity for the most vulnerable Americans.

I can help.

I want to help.

This is an offer to those leaders who seek help.