Richmond – Can a politician be forgiven for racist behavior from the past?
What if that behavior evoked the darkest chapters of American history, from slavery to segregation?
That’s a question the state of Virginia has been grappling with since last week when its governor, Ralph Northam, was caught up in a row over blackface: the crude caricaturing of African Americans as a means of entertaining white people since the minstrel shows of the 1830s.
The 59-year-old Democrat is refusing to resign over a yearbook photograph showing a person in blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan robes – denying either was him.
The scandal exploded into a full-blown crisis for Virginia’s Democrats after two women came forward to accuse Northam’s deputy Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, while the next in line for the top job, Attorney General Mark Herring, admitted to engaging in blackface in college, too.
With no resolution in sight, Republicans have been rubbing their hands at the prospect of gains in the key swing state.
“African Americans are very angry at the double standard on full display in Virginia!” President Donald Trump tweeted Sunday, with barely concealed glee.
But most crucially for James “JJ” Minor, president of the Richmond chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the episode has forced a new reckoning with the state’s painful legacy.
“Black face is dehumanising, it’s evil,” Minor, who is black, told AFP in an interview at the state capital’s railway station in the Shockoe Bottom district, once home to a booming slave auction industry that featured in the film “12 Years a Slave.”
The Northam episode, he said, has shown “that Sweet Old Dixie is still around” – a nickname for the Southern states of the Confederate era.
Sometimes known as the “Cradle of America”, Virginia was home to four of the country’s first five presidents.
But it was also one of the most significant regions for the Atlantic slave trade, the main battleground of the mid-19th century Civil War that was fought over slavery, and later one of the states most resistant to the civil rights movement that brought an end to segregation.
That troubled legacy still arouses fierce passions: in 2017, a white supremacist rally in the Virginia city of Charlottesville – held to protest the removal of a Confederate statue – turned violent, leaving one counter-protester dead.
“The legacy of slavery, racism and the Jim Crow era remains an albatross around the necks of African Americans,” said a statement from the state assembly’s powerful Black Caucus, which like the NAACP has urged Northam to stand down.
“We can no longer hide behind a facade of unity, we must fiercely and intentionally combat the hatred of the past that still lives today.”
A Washington Post-Schar School poll, however, showed Virginians deadlocked, with equal numbers for and against Northam’s resignation – and support for him staying in office higher among African Americans than among whites.
Some, like Reverend Dwayne Whitehead, the African American pastor of Richmond’s World Overcomers Church, argue forcefully against punishing Northam for decades-old wrongdoings.
“I’m not as devastated by blackface and neither will I hold a person accountable for what they did 35 years ago, when this election for him as governor was not based upon who he was 35 years ago,” the grey-suited 52-year-old told AFP.
Northam was roundly attacked for his reaction to the yearbook revelation: a confused sequence that saw him first admit, then deny, appearing in the photo, only to apologise instead for wearing blackface on another occasion while imitating the late Michael Jackson.
For Whitehead, though, the impulse to oust him stems from a bandwagon mentality, and weakens Democrats at a time of rising racial violence – linked by critics to incendiary rhetoric by Trump.
“I know that sometimes,” he said, “it’s a case of ‘I’m supposed to respond like this,’ and ‘this is what’s expected of me'”.
Whitehead points in the governor’s defense to initiatives like a dialogue about racial justice — announced before the blackface row.
Northam now says he plans to dedicate the rest of his term to helping Virginia “heal” — telling CBS in an interview Sunday, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Yet Jasmine Leeward, of the New Virginia Majority progressive advocacy group, is unconvinced.
She says Herring’s open admission of a “one time incident” — he preemptively revealed he wore brown makeup and a wig to imitate a rapper while in college — left room for forgiveness.
“He has been a very articulate champion of some of the issues,” the 25-year-old black woman said, citing work fighting for Muslim migrants hit by Trump’s travel ban.
But Northam, she says, has to go.