The Blackface Scandal in Virginia – Ways In / Ways Out (March 2019 edition)

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring attended a March 14, 2019, community dialogue organized by master's students from S-CAR on the subject of lynching memorial markers to be placed in Loudoun County. (Image source: Fox 5 DC)

In early February, revelations emerged that two of Virginia’s top officials, Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring (both Democrats), had donned blackface in the past, raising questions around the state’s history of racism and the accountability of its public officials.  

Additionally, it was later revealed that Virginia’s Republican Senate leader, Tommy Norment, had served as an editor for a 1968 yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute that featured photos of individuals in blackface, along with racial slurs. 

The implication of so many top Virginian officials in such blatant displays of racism refocused discussion across the state and the country on both the dehumanizing nature of blackface in America and Virginia’s fraught history with racism. 

In our first edition of Ways In / Ways Out, a new series from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, we asked members of the S-CAR community to reflect on these revelations and offer perspectives from the field of conflict analysis and resolution. 

Each month, Ways In / Ways Out will bring together voices from S-CAR's community—faculty, students, staff, and alumni—to weigh in on contemporary conflicts around the world and offer insights on steps that could contribute to their resolution. 

We thank our contributors for offering their insights in this inaugural edition. 

– Audrey Williams, Storyteller and News Editor 

Virginia needs a systemic policy of commemoration 

Karina V. Korostelina 
Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution
School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

The recent calls for the resignation of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam following the public discussion of the racist page from his medical school yearbook is a seeming solution that avoids the resolution of the conflict and does not help to resolve its deep roots. The complicated history of racial relations as well as current problems of disproportional incarceration, educational underachievement, and income disparity need a “thick” rather than a “thin” reconciliation.  

The Governor of Virginia should be called upon to make the process of systemically addressing a poignant common past a vital component of political culture. Together with the proposal for creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and revisions of history curricula, the Commonwealth of Virginia needs to establish a policy of commemorations as a set of events, institutions, and actions that confront, critically assess, and shape its history, keeping it relevant to the present and future.  

In the process of implementing the policy of commemorations, the values attached to heritage images, sites or objects are often profoundly linked to a group’s need for increased self-esteem and pride, the restoration of justice, and healing the traumas of the past. These values also serve to challenge or preserve social hierarchies and legitimization of a group’s position of power. Engagement in a deep dialogue about the connotations of the past and avoidance of monolithic interpretations can help prevent violence and define the meaning of interracial relations for new generations to come. 

The Blackface Scandals of 2019: A conflict resolution response 

Richard E. Rubenstein
University Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs
School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University 

In future years, the trouble now besetting Virginia’s leading Democrats (and a few Republicans as well) may be called “the Blackface Scandals.” As we now know, Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page contains a photo of two people posed as characters in a racist tableau: one is in blackface; the other wears the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. One of these figures may or may not be the current governor; it really doesn’t matter, since the pictorial display is a vicious cartoon that treats organized violence against Black people as a joke. Northam apologized for this and admitted blackening his face in college for a dance contest.  Virginia’s attorney general, Mark Herring, made a similar admission and apology.    

When these facts were revealed, virtually every would-be leader of the Democratic Party called upon the governor to resign his office.  Why, since virtually nobody who knows Ralph Northam today considers him a racist? Two main reasons were given. (1) The yearbook page constitutes a gross and painful insult to African Americans everywhere, including the Commonwealth of Virginia. (2) People of all races feel betrayed by these revelations, with the result (according to some critics) that Northam has lost their trust.   

Alone among leading Democrats, former Congressman Jim Moran disagreed, arguing that Northam’s case presents “a redemption issue,” and that “public shamings don’t solve problems.” I agree. When people commit criminal offenses and then return to society, those who have paid their dues and have reformed should be treated like anyone else; the books are wiped clean. Well, the governor has clearly repented. Furthermore, he has done more for Black and working-class Virginians than most of the politicians now calling for his head. There are, indeed, further dues to be paid, but exile from public life seems a particularly useless form of retribution.  

What should Ralph Northam do to regain his constituents’ trust? Two initiatives seem germane. First, he should establish a facilitated process to assist all Virginians to remember and come to terms with their racist past. Some have suggested an updated version of a truth and reconciliation commission. Other ideas, some national in scope, are also being discussed by those interested in conflict resolution.   

Second, formulate and implement effective programs to eliminate the causes of continuing racism. These causes include not only ignorance and prejudice, but poverty, precarity, and social humiliation. Socioeconomic fears and personal insecurities have long inclined white people in America to consider people of color a threat to their welfare and status. A genuinely non-racist society would never tolerate the sort of poverty and near-poverty among people of color and hard-pressed white folk that daily devastates their communities.  

The next order of business, for Governor Northam and all of us, should be to develop effective programs to confront and transform this nation’s legacy of racial and class oppression.  

Skip the easy grace, Governor Northam, and “do the right thing!” 

Jayne Docherty 
Academic Programs Director 
Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University 
PhD ’98, ICAR, George Mason University 

On February 10, 2019, I urged Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring to “Do the Right Thing.” But, what is the right thing in Virginia in 2019?  

Racism is not (only) about behavior. Racism is when elected leaders promote, implement, or fail to dismantle policies, practices, and institutions that perpetuate disparities of opportunity or protection along racial lines. While Herring has a long record of challenging unjust laws and racist systems, Northam does not. And this difference matters. 

Dominion Energy (a large contributor to many political candidates, including Northam) is planning a single compressor station along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Location? Union Hill, a community founded by freed slaves. What did Northam do? Two weeks before a key vote on whether to approve the planned station, Northam removed two outspoken critics of the station from the State Air Pollution Control Board. For many critics, the failure to confront environmental racism in this case is clear.  

Northam is well positioned as a “true Son of Virginia” to lead all of us in confronting and dismantling racism in the Commonwealth. To do this, he needs to replace Roots with The New Jim Crow or How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America or When Affirmative Action Was White. As the descendant of a slave-owning family, he can also benefit from connecting with Coming to the Table—an organization that brings together the descendants of slave-owning families and descendants of those they enslaved. This won’t be easy for any of us. A helpful, readable guide to starting the conversation is the newly published Little Book of Racial Healing. 

Governor Northam has announced that he will be working with Virginians for Reconciliation to make 2019 a year of racial healing and reconciliation. Unfortunately, this organization is putting white leaders front and center, including former Governor McDonnell. When white leaders push for healing and reconciliation without first focusing on truth telling, this is a bid for easy grace. It would be better to promote truth telling in every community in Virginia, Governor Northam.


Ways In / Ways Out is a monthly series produced by S-CAR that brings together S-CAR faculty, students, and alumni to weigh in on the dynamics of a select contemporary conflict and offer innovative next steps toward its resolution and/or transformation.

In this series, we invite contributors to consider ways in to a conflict, be it historical narratives of the conflict (How did we get here? What happened?) or, more theoretically, ways in toward better understanding or (re)framing a conflict. We ask them also to draw on their own scholarship and practice-based expertise in the field of conflict analysis and resolution to imagine and address possibilities for ways out of intractable conflict toward a more constructive, just, and peaceful future.

If you are a member of the S-CAR community and have a contemporary conflict that you would like to see covered in upcoming editions of Ways In / Ways Out, or if you’d like to be considered to contribute to future editions, email scarnews@gmu.eduwith “Ways In / Ways Out” in the subject line.