Governor Northam and Racism in Virginia | Tristan Shields

Governor Northam and Racism in Virginia

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Nobody wants to think of themselves as a bad person. When we fall short, our reflex is to see ourselves as good people having a bad day.

So is Virginia having a bad day or is Virginia a bad place? In the past week we have become a punchline for comedians and we have been condemned by pundits. Whatever angle you are viewing Governor Northam’s situation from, we all seem to be taking it personally.

I’m a young rural white Democratic politician and I’m trying to make sense of all this. So, I let millennial nature take over and turned to big data for answers. Basically, I Googled it.

The anonymity of the internet has created a very interesting opportunity for us to learn what people really think. Guess what? According to Google, Virginia is a pretty racist place. Not as bad as West Virginia or upstate New York, but still, not as friendly to African Americans as politicians would like us to believe.

Here’s a map of all the searches on Google that used the “N” word. Most of these searches were to find jokes mocking African Americans.

Virginia has a overall red tint with some areas being very red. However, we’re not alone. Bias, prejudice and racism is alive and well in America. This map comprises millions of searches. What social scientists know is that these searches correlate with actual racist behavior of all kinds in those areas. It also happens to correlate with the strongest support of Donald Trump. You could argue that racism helped Donald Trump get elected. Pundits thought his racist comments (like his Obama birther conspiracy stuff, his tweeting of false statistics about the crime rate among black men, his refusal to repudiate David Duke) would disqualify him. In reality, it actually helped him. I’m only saying this to demonstrate how prevalent and powerful racism is as a political tool.

This brings me back to Ralph Northam. I view this situation as an opportunity to exercise some real leadership. We need leaders who can break the cycle of unconscious behavior that perpetuates systemic racism. Trump was such a shock because many of us believed blatant racism and misogyny were disqualifiers. Obviously we were wrong.

So, in light Governor Northam’s blackface scandal, are we asking ourselves the right question? Is it about him or is it about us?

We have an opportunity to set a new standard of behavior for Virginia’s political leaders. Twenty years from now, let’s not have to say “Things were different in 2019. Blackface didn’t disqualify you from holding office.” Because if we don’t change, the cycle will just perpetuate. I believe we should do the hard thing and deal with this problem now.