By Wornie Reed
Reed is professor of sociology and Africana Studies and director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech.
It continually amazes me that people and organizations in positions to do more to atone for racist acts often only apologize. Yes, believable apologies are acceptable actions, but not nearly enough. But too many of us accept this pitiable act. It is time to stop doing that.
We must demand more of Gov. Northam. He is in a position to do more than apologize. The governor presides over a state that is doing things to African-Americans much worse than wearing blackface.
He need look no further than his criminal justice system. Currently, the black adult incarceration rate in Virginia is five times that of whites. Among youth, the black detention rate is seven times that of whites. And neither one of these disparities is warranted.
A recent newspaper investigation of court records showed that while African Americans are 20 percent of the population of adults in Virginia, they are half of those charged with marijuana offenses.
Surveys show that blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rates. However, blacks are more than twice as likely to be arrested and charged as whites.
Thus, the criminal justice system in Virginia is a primary institution practicing racism. We could use a sincere leader to move this institution toward fairness and equity.
Government surveys show that blacks and whites use and sell illegal drugs at about the same rates. However, the criminal justice system treats blacks and whites differently.
Once again, in 2017, blacks who constituted 20 percent of the adult population and approximately 20 percent of offenders in Virginia were 43 percent of all illegal drug (including marijuana) offenders arrested. The black proportion of all offenders going to prison for these offenses is estimated to be much higher than the 43 percent arrested. In 2010 it was 75 percent—20 percent of the offenders and 75 percent of the incarcerated.
Northam is head of the government that is perpetrating this racial discrimination. He should be duty bound — especially now — to correct this injustice.
Another racial matter on which the governor can take the lead is Virginia’s Confederate monuments. As former FBI director James Comey argued in his article in the New York Times last month, the Confederate statues should come down as they are much larger and more powerful symbols of white oppression than the despicable blackface caricatures.
Comey argues, and I agree, that the Confederate statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue were not erected to honor the service of brave warriors, else they would have been established earlier than 1890. Rather, they were put there in support of white supremacy.
These monuments were installed between 1890 and 1920, during the time “Jim Crow” was institutionalized. Comey makes the compelling argument that if the monuments were established to honor Confederate heroes, James Longstreet would be represented. Longstreet was one of the foremost Confederate generals of the Civil War and reputed to be General Robert E. Lee’s designated successor if he had fallen in battle. Many Civil War historians now consider him among the war’s most gifted commanders.
But General Longstreet was the wrong kind of hero — a heritage not to be celebrated. After the Civil War Longstreet renewed his friendship with President Grant, became a Republican, and in 1974 led African-American militia against the attempted insurrection of the anti-Reconstruction White League in New Orleans. No statue.
While campaigning for the Virginia governorship in 2017 following the Unite the Rally event in Charlottesville, Northam was adamant about the need for Confederate monuments in the state to come down. After becoming governor he softened his position, saying the disposition of the statues should be left up to localities.
After the blackface picture was revealed, Northam said in a Washington Post interview that “If there are statues, if there are monuments out there that provoke this type of hatred and bigotry, they need to be in museums.”
Well, governor, most African-Americans have always seen these statues as symbols of hatred and bigotry. Now it’s time for your apology tour to get serious.