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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

@DemocracyNow: Has Virginia's First Lady made cotton racist?

The campaign to force Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to resign has reached such a fever pitch that some of his opponents are now claiming that even mentioning cotton is racist. I kid you not. This bizarre assertion was prompted by the way Virginia's First Lady conducted a tour of the statehouse for a group of young pages. Since she has been a strong support for her husband and has been outspoken in backing his refusal to resign, it was only a matter of time before his opponents in Virginia Democratic circles turned their fire on her. This is how Democracy Now reported this latest outrage against black Virginians:
Virginia’s First Lady Apologizes for Handing Cotton to Black Students

Virginia’s first lady Pam Northam has apologized after she handed out cotton to African-American students touring the Governor’s Mansion and asked them to imagine being an enslaved cotton picker.

The incident came as Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, continues to resist mounting calls from within his own party to step down after claims he posed for a racist photo seen in his 1984 medical school yearbook page depicting a man wearing blackface next to a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam has denied that he is in the photo, but he did admit to wearing blackface on another occasion that same year and apologized. [Note: I blogged about this in Northam blackface: Does Democracy Now really believe most Michael Jackson impersonators are racist?]

After the latest incident, Leah Dozier Walker, the mother of one of the students handed cotton by first lady Pam Northam, said in a statement, “The governor and Mrs. Northam have asked the residents of the commonwealth to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions. But the actions of Mrs. Northam, just last week, do not lead me to believe that this governor’s office has taken seriously the harm and hurt they have caused African Americans in Virginia or that they are deserving of our forgiveness.”
She should have never apologized. That was her big mistake. She had nothing to apologized for. But by saying in an email “I regret that I have upset anyone,” she allowed the media to break the story with what sounds like an admission of quilt, which then is spun into an example of continued racist behavior. An apology is something we will never hear from the real white supremacists, like those in the White House.

To explain why I think she had nothing to apologize for, it is necessary to bring in some facts that Democracy Now found convenient to leave out.

First to set the scene: At the end of the state Senate session, it has been the tradition that the young people who had served as pages for the Senate be given a tour of the Executive Mansion. The traditional tour focused on..well, you know what it focused on. This year Pam Northam, who was a teacher herself, decided to shake things up a little my making the history of the African American slaves that build the mansion in 1813, among other things, a much bigger part of the tour. To improve the tour she met with experts at Monticello to learn more of its slave history, and invited a speaker to deliver a program titled “How Oral History Gave Voice to Monticello’s Enslaved Community.”

The tours are normally lead by trained docents. This year Pam Northam decided to take part in leading the tours herself. Yes, this row is very much in the "tradition" of leaving no good deed unpunished.

This year the tour took place on 21 February and involved 100 pages, only 3 of which were African American. I think both Leah Dozier Walker and Democracy Now should be raising hell about the fact that so few of the pages are African American when they are 19.55% of the Virginia population, but apparently that wasn't a problem for them because they never mentioned it. The example of Virginia racism they wanted to highlight was the way the other Northam insulted the kids with cotton.

While leading a group of about 20, Pam Northam held up samples of raw cotton and tobacco, and after handing the cotton around to the group, according to daughter Alexandra Walker, she said:
"Can you imagine being an enslaved person, and having to pick this all day?"
Oh! the outrage! What an insensitive, racist thing to say!

While both Leah Dozier Walker and Democracy Now said that only the African American pages were handed the cotton, other observers said that was not the case. Although she handed it off to the page that was closest to her, who happened to be African American, it was intended for, and passed around the group. Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), whose daughter served as a page this session, said Northam handed the cotton around to all of the students:
“The first lady’s intent was to show the horrors of slavery and to make sure everyone felt the pain they felt in some small measure,”
The Washington Post interviewed ten of the pages involved in the tour, and they had a different story:
“In all 10 cases, the pages or their parents insisted that the first lady — a former science teacher — conducted their tours with sensitivity and with no special focus on the black pages.”
Walker's take was very different. She wrote a letter 25 February to lawmakers and the office of Gov. Ralph Northam to complain about the cotton incident. She said that Alexandra Walker, her eight-grade daughter was one of the three African American children she hand the cotton to, and because of that:
"[H]er visit to the Governor's Mansion left her upset and deeply offended." 
Apparently, she has a very shielded and sensitive daughter. Maybe St. Catherine's School, the elite, predominantly white female prep school her daughter attends should give her more of a real world education. If she became "upset and deeply offended" by being asked to touch cotton in the executive mansion, she will be truly traumatized by life on most city streets. Walker continued:
"Can you imagine how offended these children felt, and also how powerless they felt in that moment to advocate for themselves?  Why would ANYONE ask children to imagine something like that, let alone African American Children?  There are no words to truly convey how horrified I was to hear this account from my daughter and how outraged I am that Mrs. Northam would represent the Commonwealth in this manner." 
On 1 March she tweeted as if her daughter had once been a slave, and was now traumatized by being forced to relive it:
I do not expect for non black students or parents to understand the pain and suffering African Americans associate with cotton -  or of being asked to relive the horrors associated with the racist institution of American slavery - even in a historical context.
What utter nonsense! My grandfather began as a share cropper in North Carolina. Later, he owned the land. When my mother would take my brother and I down for summer vacations, he would have us pick cotton, among other things. He didn't do it to be mean or racist, and he didn't have us do this because we added significantly to the farm's productivity. He did this so that we would have some hands-on experience with our history.

Handling raw cotton in the executive mansion is not quite the same experience as handling it in the field, but it's a start. I wonder how many of those children where "reliving" the experience of handling raw cotton? I don't think I have since those days on my grandpa's farm some sixty years ago.

One of the convenient facts left out by Democracy Now is that the cotton bool was never actually handed to Walker's daughter by the First Lady, according the letter Alexandra wrote that her mother attached to her email. In that letter she said she did not take the cotton, but her friend did. She wrote “It made her very uncomfortable.”

BTW, Walker is more than just a concerned parent, she oversees the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state Education Department, and is a partisan in the current struggle for political power in Virginia. She also opposed Northam before this incident. She retweeted Larry Sabato on 9 February, and she sent out two tweets the next day criticizing Governor Northam for saying the first 20 Africans to arrive at Point Comfort, VA were treated as indentured servants:
They were brought were to be SLAVES Governor!! There is a DIFFERENCE.
These are all details Amy Goodman neglected to mention. She went on in the letter:
“The Governor and Mrs. Northam have asked the residents of the Commonwealth to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions. But the actions of Mrs. Northam, just last week, do not lead me to believe that this Governor’s office has taken seriously the harm and hurt they have caused African Americans in Virginia or that they are deserving of our forgiveness.”
Oh, the horror! They'll want to ban handing out cotton to children. I hope that doesn't extend to cotton candy.

First a racist photo was discovered on Northam's 1984 yearbook half-page. Then he admitted to doing a Michael Jackson impersonation that same year. Then he went on national television and said that the first Africans in Virginia before racial slavery was established, were treated as indentured servants. Now his wife is going around the executive mansion handing out cotton to black kids! Is this not worst than the racists in the White House?

Walker goes on to misrepresent what actually happened. In her telling, the African American pages were singled out for this cotton treatment:
“I can not for the life of me understand why the first lady would single out the African American pages for this — or — why she would ask them such an insensitive question.”
A letter written by her daughter was attached to Walker's submission. Her daughter described the incident as “beyond inappropriate, especially considering recent events” involving Gov. Ralph Northam, and then went on to say:
“It was very testing to know I had to go somewhere, and I had no choice as to if I went, I had to be respectful, and be on my best behavior, even when the people in positions of power I was around were not doing the same.” 
Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar said “we received no complaints” after the mansion visit, but they were certainly hearing about them now.

Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News), a member of the Black Caucus had some.. She thought that cotton itself is such a symbol of racism that it shouldn't be handed to students:
“The cotton itself is a symbol of murder, rape, displacement and the radiating effects of the transatlantic slave trade that black Virginians are still experiencing today. I don’t know that you have to have actual cotton handed to the children to understand slavery was bad.”
Have these people lost their minds? Cotton itself is a symbol of murder? Then I should burn my T-shirts and blue jeans! Cotton itself is a symbol of rape? Am I condemned forever then to sleep on polyester if I can't afford silk?

African American opinion writer for The Washington PostJonathan Capehart fastened on the same way "for African Americans, cotton is not an abstraction. It is as integral to our family history as it is to the nation’s." The title of his article was Hecuva way to end black history month, which I guess he thinks fits because he published it on 28 February even though the cotton was handed round a week earlier.

While these attacks on the Virginia governor and his wife masquerade as struggles against white supremacy, they are really quite the opposite. The critical fight against white supremacy today is directed clearly at the worldwide white nationalist movement being lead by Alexandr Dugin and Vladimir Putin from Moscow, and their sycophants that have obtained (usually with their help) positions of power in the West. Their greatest success has been helping Donald Trump take the White House. In the United States, the fight against white supremacy means squarely confronting this Trump cabal, and the racist policies emanating from it everyday.

This charge that Pam Northam somehow was practicing racism when she handed raw cotton to some of the most privileged teenagers in Virginia, including three that were African American, is the practice of identity politics at its worst. It plays right into the hands of the Fox News crowd that is looking to trivialize what is really the leading threat to human existence because it stands in the way of effective action against all the others, including capitalism and climate change.

If there was one question that should have been pressed with regards to this Virginia Governor mansion tour, it is why only 3 out of the hundred pages that were on it were African American in a state in which they are 20% of the population. This question got neglected by Democracy Now in its effort to drive Ralph Northam out of office.   

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