The debate on alleged blackface racism doesn’t allow for grey areas

Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, with his wife Pam during a news conference. Picture: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Three politicians in Virginia have brought a new meaning to the phrase “succession planning”. In addition, they have changed the harmless school year book into a ticking career timebomb, writes Terry Prone.

The first guy is Governor Ralph Northam, who confessed to wearing blackface in school. This meant he used burnt cork, back in the mid-1980s, to make himself look like an African-American, and right sorry he is for so doing. On the other hand, he says, he is definitely not the blacked-up white student in the picture in his school yearbook and standing beside another student dressed in Ku Klux Klan headgear. That’s someone else, and he isn’t resigning over it.

Now, maybe advanced facial-recognition technology could identify the photographed student in the hat, the bow tie, and the shiny black face, but that’s not the point. The point is that, when he believed it was him, Northam confirmed that he had worn blackface, apologised for it, and refused to resign over something he’d done decades before. Now, he says it isn’t him in the picture, and he’s still not resigning, despite much public clamour for him to do just that.

Which brings us to the line of succession. In theory, were Governor Northam to resign, into his place would seamlessly pop an African-American, Justin Fairfax. The problem about Fairfax is that he currently stands accused of rape and sexual assault by two women. However, even if Fairfax can’t accede to the governorship and replace Northam, Virginia doesn’t run out of succession candidates. If Fairfax is a busted flush, next in line is attorney general Mark Herring, a white-haired ambassadorial type who was one of the first to call for Northam’s resignation.

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