The nearly three-year-old Virginia blackface scandal surrounding Gov. Ralph Northam has resurfaced as the state’s Democratic and Republican gubernatorial nominees court Black voters ahead of next week’s election — and he’s not even running.
Whether it will be a factor in the election’s outcome remains to be seen, but Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate, seemingly sure hopes it will. Having failed to increase his appeal among Black voters, Youngkin last week released a video of his opponent, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, appearing to dismiss the severity of and implications behind blackface while denying that it was even Northam pictured in the controversial photo that led to the scandal in the first place.
Youngkin’s political play is clear: to paint McAuliffe in the same racist light in which Northam was depicted when the photo was leaked on Feb. 1 — the first day of Black History Month — in 2019.
As a reminder, the photo showed one unidentified man wearing blackface and smiling while standing next to another unidentified person dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. They were shown holding apparent cans of beer in a festive setting in a yearbook photo that was reportedly taken at a party at Eastern Virginia Medical School, where Northam was trained to become a medical doctor in the early 1980s.
Northam immediately denied it was him in the picture before later admitting that he was unsure who it was, which implies it very well could have been him. He also bizarrely admitted to applying black shoe polish to his face for a Michael Jackson dance competition.
Northam ignored calls for him to resign even though doing so would have given Virginia its second-ever Black governor by promoting then-Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who in turn, became a reviled figure when attention was coincidentally deflected to two women accusing him of rape, taking some of the political pressure off of Northam in the interim.
It was in that context that Youngkin likely decided to release the video of McAuliffe being interviewed about Northam’s blackface scandal in a desperate attempt to have more Black voters support him in Tuesday’s election.
To be sure, the video does absolutely no favors for McAuliffe, the one-term governor of Virginia before Northam was elected, no favors at all. It shows McAuliffe regurgitating the narrative that it wasn’t Northam in the photo and defending the governor from the claims. But it was how McAuliffe offered his defense of Northam — who has endorsed McAuliffe — that may give some Virginia voters pause.
“Even if it had been him in the blackface, you know, it was a dumb mistake 40 years ago,” McAuliffe said in what was widely received as downplaying the centuries-old offensive practice of white people applying dark makeup to mock Black people with a racist caricature.
Youngkin, who is a disciple of Donald trump’s school of political thought, contrasted McAuliffe’s comments in the video with his initial reaction to Northam’s blackface scandal in 2019, calling it “racist” and “inexcusable at any age.” The comments in the video make it appear as if McAuliffe excused what he previously called “inexcusable.”
The Virginia gubernatorial election is coming down to the wire with polling showing McAuliffe and Youngkin in a virtual tie with barely more than a week to go until their election.
The concern about the turnout of Black voters is real in Virginia; so much so that the national party has recruited the likes of former Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to campaign for McAuliffe.
We’ll find out next week if it was enough.