Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.), who is himself notorious for the KKK-blackface photo on his medical school yearbook page, announced on Wednesday that he would use the George Floyd riots as a pretext to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va. In a tweet thread expressing solidarity with “protesters” but notably omitting any condemnation for the destructive rioters who have destroyed black lives and livelihoods, Northam presented his own agenda as the answer to their problems — how convenient!
“I hear you, and I am here to work with you––that is my message to protestors in Richmond and around Virginia. I cannot know the depth of the pain that black Americans feel right now. But I can stand with you, I can support you, and together we can turn this pain into action,” Northam began. “This means continuing the important work that we have begun together.”
“And it means continuing to take steps to right historical inequities in our criminal justice system, in education, in our health system, in access to business opportunities, and a lot more,” the governor added. “It means making it easier to vote, not harder.”
This means continuing the important work that we have begun together. And it means continuing to take steps to right historical inequities in our criminal justice system, in education, in our health system, in access to business opportunities, and a lot more.
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) June 3, 2020
It seemed as if Northam were telling rioters, “I’m already at the forefront of everything you’re fighting for, so don’t worry, I won’t condemn your wanton destruction. Instead, I’ll push your agenda — because it’s the same as my agenda!”
At the end of his tweet threat, the governor admitted, “I know these actions will not bring back the lives lost. But they will help us create the systematic change that is needed to make sure that what happened to George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery––and so many other black Americans––doesn’t continue to happen.” Yet the situations of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery — horrific as they were — are very different, and race was only the clear motivator in one of those deaths.
While Northam has mobilized the National Guard, he has not deployed Virginia National Guard troops to keep the peace, and he has refused President Donald Trump’s request that he send them to Washington, D.C. Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) sent Maryland’s National Guard troops to help restore order in the capital.
While Northam did “encourage” the protesters “to be peaceful” in a press conference on Tuesday, he proved far more interested in sympathizing with the protests that devolved into riots and claiming his own policies as their true demands.
Virginia Gov. Northam Sneaks in Raft of Lefty Bills on Voting, Guns, Abortion, Climate, LGBT — Under Cover of Easter Weekend
Northam’s political tactics
This political tactic seems rather reminiscent of the governor’s decision to sign a raft of lefty bills on Easter and Passover weekend during a pandemic. While religious Virginians were celebrating Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter, and Passover, Northam signed 45 bills on subjects ranging from abortion to voting, from climate to LGBT issues, from guns to collective bargaining, the minimum wage, and Confederate monuments. He seemingly attempted to smuggle Democrats’ radical new laws past Virginians as they celebrated the holidays and hunkered down to fight the virus.
Never one to let a crisis go to waste, Northam touted some of his work on race issues while pledging to support policies he already supported. He suggested an overhaul of the criminal justice system, education, health care, and “access to business opportunities.”
This sounds rather reminiscent of the governor’s announcement on Holy Saturday, when he announced he had signed laws to “repeal discriminatory language” regarding education, criminal law, health care, housing, transportation, and voting. Some of these laws did need to be repealed — Northam’s action followed a report on racial inequality in Virginia that highlighted some truly racist laws still on the books.
Yet Northam’s stance on Confederate monuments has been controversial, and he advanced his opposition to those monuments both in his Easter weekend raft of lefty legislation and in the wake of the George Floyd riots.
In April, he overturned Virginia’s prohibition on the removal of Confederate monuments and created a commission to recommend a replacement for Virginia’s Robert E. Lee statue in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. “These monuments tell a particular version of history that doesn’t include everyone,” the governor said. “In Virginia, that version of history has been given prominence and authority for far too long.”
On Wednesday, a senior government official in Virginia told the Associated Press that Northam would announce the removal of the prominent Robert E. Lee statue along Richmond’s Monument Avenue. While the AP described the announcement as “an extraordinary victory for civil rights activists,” Virginians do not support the removal of such statues.
Virginians oppose Northam’s virtue signaling
According to a Quinnipiac University poll from 2018, most Virginia voters want Confederate monuments like the Robert E. Lee statue to remain where they are. Fifty-seven percent of Virginia voters said they oppose removing the monuments, while only 33 percent said they supported such removals. Ten percent remained undecided.
Nonwhite voters also favored leaving the monuments alone (48 percent to 42 percent).
Most voters said the monuments are symbols of Southern pride, not symbols of racism.
National polls have also confirmed that Americans in general support leaving the statues alone. An NPR/PBS News/Marist poll found that 62 percent of Americans supported leaving “statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy” standing. At the same time, 86 percent of those in the poll said they disagreed with white supremacy and 73 percent said they disagreed with white nationalists.
Even black Americans favored keeping the statues (44 percent to 40 percent). Indeed, a group in Dallas organized to protect Confederate statues — and the members are mostly black.
“I’m not intimidated by Robert E. Lee’s statue. I’m not intimidated by it. It doesn’t scare me,” former city council member Sandra Crenshaw, a black woman, told CBS Dallas-Fort Worth. “We don’t want America to think that all African Americans are supportive of” removing the statues. She denounced as “misguided” the idea that “by taking a statue down, that’s going to erase racism.”
While the Confederacy emerged after a decade in which Southern politicians pushed to expand race-based slavery into the territories, monuments recognizing Confederate generals need not be symbols of racism or white supremacy. Robert E. Lee himself was not only a consummate military genius but he also aimed to bring America back together after the Civil War.
Some of Northam’s actions on the race issue have been noble, but his attempt to make Confederate monuments a race issue is out of step with Virginians and Americans in general.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.