By Jeff Thomas
Thomas is the author of “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power.”
We were taught to be proud of the former capital of the Confederacy when I was born in Richmond in the year of Ralph Northam’s yearbook publication.
I never saw blackface or a KKK uniform in pictures of my parents, or grandparents’ friends, or anyone. But that picture represents a Virginia I know too well.
I never saw pictures like that because Virginia’s political class did not have to dress in costumes to display those attitudes. Our racial indoctrination is deeper: it is our state religion, the myth of the majesty of Virginia.
Ralph Northam is living Virginia’s history, and he reflects those values back to us. His moonwalk press conference was a testament to this mental repression and historical obliviousness, as if he had truly never contemplated racism until that second.
There is something profoundly broken about our people. After a Confederacy-glorifying lunatic murdered churchgoers in 2015, South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds. When New Orleans’ Lee monument was taken down in 2017, journalists outnumbered the protesters. When Charlottesville’s Lee statute faced relocation that year, thousands of neo-Nazis and other psychopaths rioted and one of them murdered a counter-protester.
Richmond’s Monument Avenue statues — easily the most prominent Confederate memorials in the world — remain untouchable. Meanwhile, Richmond’s slave-trading center — the largest slave market on the East Coast, the site of Solomon Northup’s imprisonment and Gabriel Prosser’s martyrdom — is memorialized as a vacant lot with a plaque.
What gains Virginians achieved have come largely from without. The Union ended slavery. Federal courts integrated schools, opened public universities to women (VMI in 1996; UVA in 1970), and recognized interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia. Massive resistance was born here; Virginia did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment until 1952.
Historian Brent Tarter notes that “fewer Virginians voted in the first half of the 20th century than any other place in the world that had elections.” In the national Health of Democracies project, Virginia was ranked 50th out of 51 states and D.C. Oxfam ranked Virginia dead last of the states and D.C. in its 2018 report on “the best and worst states to work in America.”
Yet James Branch Cabell’s 1947 passage is just as descriptive in 2019: “Of beauty and of chivalry and of gray legions they spoke, and of a fallen civilization such as the world will not ever see again, and, for that matter, never did see; of a first permanent settlement, and of a Mother of Presidents, and of a republic’s cradle, and of Stars and Bars, and of yet many other bygones, long ago at one with dead Troy and Atlantis, they babbled likewise, for interminable years, without ever, ever ceasing.”
Money is the root of this. Virginia was founded as The Virginia Company of London, and the same people who owned the state also dominated the state’s politics. The nature of political power over four centuries has not changed even as capitalism transformed the seats of economic wealth from dynastic families to immortal corporations.
How did this happen?
Virginia’s ruling class invented a state religion about the myths of Saint Jefferson and General Lee to control the population. The myth and reality are symbiotic. If everything is great, then why change?
Virginia’s ruling class claims it is not racist. That is a lie. They claim that the state’s wealthiest city, Richmond, has the state’s worst high school graduation rate because of family structure. That is a lie.
Things do not change in Virginia, because if we adequately funded public schools, then the people who own our state would have slightly less money. It is hard to think of a phrase to describe this — the word evil does not do it justice.
Reverend Ben Campbell, Rhodes Scholar and author of Richmond’s Unhealed History, said: “My current answer to the paralysis of the Virginia temperament that is so exhibited here is that we had a half-revolution in 1781: half the population went into freedom, and half the population went into a totalitarian state... To proclaim the highest values that had ever been stated in any nation in the world, and to simultaneously practice a horrible level of human oppression is paralyzing to the human spirit. It means you cannot function because you are living with guilt and shame at every moment: moreover, you constructed your society in that way. That paralysis is unadmitted and has continued to paralyze us for almost 250 years.”
Virginians cannot do this without cauterizing a collective trauma whose superficial aspects occasionally surface while the underlying economic violence continues unabated.
There was an opportunity two long weeks ago when things could have changed. But the constant lesson of Virginia history is that this moment will pass us by, and the Virginia Way system will march onward, “without ever, ever ceasing.”