Can Virginia Recover from Its Past?

Becky O'Malley
Saturday February 09, 2019 - 10:26:00 AM

When I think about the mess they’ve gotten themselves into in Virginia, a lot of words starting with “re-“ come to mind. It’s a Latinate prefix, roughly meaning “again” or “back”, and all of these words refer to the heartfelt desire of most if not all of the affected parties for a do-over in a series of regrettable occurrences.

Let’s just list a few of them in no particular order: remorse, reconciliation, reparations, rehabilitation, reform, revenge, retaliation, restore …the list could go on for a long time.

The last time I looked, there were at least three Virginia officials who have reason to regret the past.

At the top of the list is the governor, who might or might not be pictured in his medical school yearbook in either blackface or a KuKluxKlan costume. He thought he remembered being in that picture, then he remembered that he wasn’t, but he did remember another time when he did wear blackface.

Third down on the list is the attorney general, who also remembers wearing blackface for a costume party when he was only 19, but he brought it up himself and he apologized.

Number two, the lieutenant governor, seems to be in even more trouble, with a second woman now claiming that he raped her in the past.

But really, it’s the whole state of Virginia that’s in trouble.

So let’s assume, shall we, that all three charges are somewhat true. What’s to be done now? 

We can start with “remorse”. Two of the three have apologized profusely, and there’s no reason to think that they should feel anything but profound remorse for their youthful actions, whether they showed simple insensitivity, disrespect for African-Americans, or actual racism or racial hatred. They say they’re sorry now, and surely they must be as they see the consequences, though many commenters have taken exception to the way they expressed their remorse.  

How about the one accused of rape? It’s likely the alleged victims will seek “revenge”. As of this writing he has not admitted guilt and therefore has shown no remorse. One woman accuser is already seeking her revenge in the legal system. The other is not—or not yet. 

Retaliation against the two others, the ones accused of racism, would be accomplished by forcing them to resign from their government jobs. But if they are pushed out in revenge, the consequences for those they allegedly harmed, people of color, might be serious. In contemporary Virginia, more often than not, they and their fellow Democrats have worked on the side of justice. The cure could be worse than the disease. 

Should these officials be banned for the rest of their lives from participating in political activities? Any better ideas? 

One that’s talked about a lot lately (sometimes with contempt by the right) is “restorative justice”. That’s been defined as “… rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.” Reconciliation between direct victims and victimizers has been practiced successfully in South Africa and elsewhere. 

These two officials can claim, and do, that they’ve already been” rehabilitated”, and a certain amount of reconciliation would be possible and desirable in Virginia. That’s fine for the perpetrators, but what about the victims? They are too numerous and go back too far into history to benefit much from a 2019 reconciliation process. The problem goes deeper than an insensitive blackface escapade, which is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Slavery was the first and most obvious way this country has stolen from Americans of Africa descent, but in the years since then the fruits of their labor have been taken from them in ways too numerous to list here. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates catalogued many of them in The Atlantic in 2014 in The Case for Reparations

One of his major theses is that simple poverty caused by centuries of abuse is the foundation for many of the ills which afflict African Americans to this day. It follows that one major remedy for the historic injuries to them could be financial: payment of reparations. 

As radical as this might sound in the American context, it’s been done before, here and elsewhere. The Germans paid reparations to Jews, for example. And the U.S. is compensating interned Japanese-Americans. 

The historic Commonwealth of Virginia alone accounts for many of the victims of racism and its even more evil precursor, slavery. Some of my own ancestors, the Stith family, were slaveholders in Virginia.  

But at least one family member understood and pioneered the concept of reparation. That was Mary Stith, the daughter of the third president of William and Mary College, whose house is replicated at Williamsburg in Virginia. According to historian Emily L. Powers

“Mary Stith's depth of feeling for her former slaves is apparent in the way she provided for them after her death. She wrote her will on 15 December 1813, and it reads in part: 

“ ‘All the coloured people in my family being born my slaves, but now liberated, I think it my duty not to leave them destitute nor to leave them unrecompensed for past services rendered to me. As in the cause of humanity I can do but little for so many, and that little my conscience requires me to do, therefore I subject the whole of my estate to the payment of my just debts, and to the provision which I herein make for them.’ 

“With the exception of few small legacies to white friends, Stith left most of her considerable estate, including three buildings and the ground on which they stood, to her freedmen.” 

The accused Virginia officials are but two in what must be legions of Southern (and Northern) politicians who were late to the party: who didn’t acknowledge or understand the evils of American racism until 1984 and beyond. Although many of us were active in the civil rights movement at least 25 years earlier, many were not.  

.The best account of Governor Ralph Northam’s life to date is in the invaluable Wikipedia. He went to Virginia Military Institute, then all-male and all-white, where he probably learned little of value. Lately, however, he hasn’t been half bad. 

There’s a current concept which should be considered when judging these two. Black activists have for some decades talked about being “woke”, with or without the quotes. What that originally meant was people of color grasping the reality of their own situation, but lately it’s been applied also to White people who kinda sorta get it. Even if Northam today isn’t exactly woke, he does belong to a predominantly Black church and seems to have a decent voting record appropriate for a recovering racist.  

It looks now like Governor Northam could have to quit, as surely will Lieutenant Governor Fairfax, but the Attorney General might need to hang in there despite past transgressions, because the next guy down the succession line, a Republican, would never be the choice of the Black caucus in the Virginia House of Delegates or their allies.  

If he’s out, Northam might think about what he can do as penance for his feckless youth. It might just be possible for White people in his situation, those who have a lot to answer for in their own lives but who now sincerely seek reconciliation with people of color, to work toward meaningful financial reparations for the descendants of slaves.  

We know, or at least those of us who were paying attention in the sixties know, that money won’t buy love, but money could buy some time off for the Black mother who has to work two jobs so she’d be able to afford to spend more time with her kids. It might pay tuition for some African American students. It might offer rent supplements for families which need better housing. And more. 

Governor Northam might take a leaf from Mary Stith’s book: in the cause of humanity I can do but little for so many, and that little my conscience requires me to do. 

Reparation, reconciliation, recovery—worth a try…