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Virginia Invented Whiteness. Now They Should End It.

March 1st, 2019 by dk

There’s a reason racism is sometimes likened to cancer. You may think you have it beat, only to discover later that it found new ways and places to hide itself. Complacency is never possible when eradication is the goal.

That said, there’s a blurry line between vigilance and vigilantism. Puritans wanted their own souls to be pure, but attending weekly witch trials didn’t quite accomplish that. Others can be hurt when our urges — even the good ones — sublimate themselves and hide beneath the surface.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was seen as a rising star in the Democratic party, partly because Virginia has been turning from red to blue. This has more to do with urbanization and the exploding good fortunes of suburban Washington, DC. But Northam was prominent during the shift, so people give him credit. He didn’t single-handedly drag his commonwealth over the Mason-Dixon Line.

Alas, even if you could take Virginia out of the South, you can’t take the South out of Virginia — or Virginians. Northam’s medical school yearbook includes a photo on his page of two students at what we can presume was a costume party. One donned a KKK hood and the other wore blackface.

The governor’s responses — plural — were “inartful.” First he apologized. Then he denied he had anything to do with the photo chosen for his yearbook page. Then he went into hiding for over a week. Now he’s promising to make racial equity the central theme of his governorship.

If Northam is able to convene difficult conversations about racial inequities across Virginia, he will have earned his way back into presidential contentions in 2024. There’s no better place to have this conversation than in Virginia. That colony’s government invented “whiteness” in 1691.

Virginia plantations needed enormous labor forces. Landowners looked beyond Africa, and began bringing bond servants from Ireland, Scotland and other distressed lands. To prevent African slaves and Caucasian servants from finding common cause, Virginia law specified rights that were reserved for “whites.” White and black racial identities were born in Virginia. The resulting economic and cultural disparities deserve to die there.

Only a series of frank conversations can prevent the current situation from getting worse. Sublimation simultaneously displaces and amplifies our emotions, complicating any rational response. Humans are complex, but when distressed, they can become impossible.

Take just a recent and local example. State Sen. Dennis Linthicum from Klamath Falls objected to a bill that would more than double Oregon’s cigarette tax. He cited the “I can’t breath” death of Eric Garner in New York, which started as a dispute over a sidewalk black market business of selling individual — untaxed — cigarettes.

Dozens of Democrats, who favor the tax hike, derided Linthicum’s citation as racist, even though Linthicum never mentioned Garner’s race. When is a tax hike not just a tax hike? When there are unresolved emotional issues simmering beneath the surface.

When, where and how will we have a genuine national conversation about racial inequity? Maybe Virginia is ready. Whoever can initiate that conversation deserves consideration as a national leader, regardless of what may be on their yearbook page.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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