From Covington to Northham: A History of American Controversy and Culture in 2019

February 4, 2019

6 min read

Over the weekend on February 1 Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was rocked by controversy and calls to resign after a photo emerged of a 1984 yearbook in which a man in blackface and another in a KKK outfit are pictured. First posted on February 1, the photo led to a press conference with the governor on February 2 in which he refused to resign.

Reactions to the photo have been mixed. Some left wing websites like Mother Jones point out that the photo emerged on a right wing website. Initially the governor apologized for the photo in his medical school yearbook. He claimed that it showed “a costume that is clearly racist and offensive. I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service.”

A second photo also emerged from Northam’s 1981 Virginia Military Institute yearbook in which his nickname was given as “coonman,” which appears to be a racist term as well. Leading and influential Democrats in the state and nationally have demanded explanations and also called for resignation. Calls for his resignation also came from four Democratic candidates for president – Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, have supported resignation. Eastern Virginia Medical School has said that yearbook production is a student activity and refused to comment on the old photo.

In his February 2 press conference he walked back his apology a bit. “I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo…This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam.” He did appear to allude to a second incident where he dressed as a black man. “”I had the shoes, I had a glove, and I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put under my — or on my — cheeks,” he said referring to dressing up as Michael Jackson. “I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that.”

Out of all the controversy there have been no calls for violence against the governor. In fact the discussion has generally been relatively civil. He has had the chance to speak to the media and explain himself. In fact many questions have not even been asked, such as why a 25 year old man (at the time) would have a photo like that in his yearbook in the 1980s? What kind of culture at the school allowed photos like this? Why was he called “coonman”? How can he simply claim to not remember? Why did he apologize for being in the photo and then claim not to have seen the book when it came out?

The Covington scandal

A week before the Northam controversy erupted, 16-year old Nick Sandmann sat down with the Today show to discuss his own run in with accusations of racism. The Covington Catholic High School junior was caught on video in mid-January at the Lincoln Memorial standing in front of a Native-American activist. “As far as standing there, I had every right to do so,” he said.

Social media didn’t agree. A short video of the incident claimed to show the boys “taunting” the Native American activist. Outraged people on social media excoriated Sandmann and his friends. In Washington for a pro-life rally and wearing pro-Trump hats, the boys were singled out as examples of white racism in the US. “Hundreds of videos, tweets and Facebook posts featuring the event have been shared across multiple channels,” early reports noted. They were “white students in MAGA hats,” perfect villains for the US social media age.

It took some time for a full video to appear of the incident.”A Covington student who said he was present during the incident emailed a local TV network saying the elder approached the students — not the other way around,” Vox reported. It was revealed that “members of the Black Hebrew Israelites were ‘saying some harsh things’ — which reportedly included homophobic remarks — and that one of them even spit in the students’ direction. Phillips said he decided to step in and defuse the situation.”

It turned out that Sandmann and the teens were actually the initial victims of taunts by several adult men, not the other way around. The Guardian reported on January 21 ““I did hear them direct derogatory insults at our school group … They called us ‘racists,’ ‘bigots,’ ‘white crackers,’ ‘faggots,’ and ‘incest ‘kids.’” The report goes on to note “The fresh video, which runs much longer to one hour and 46 minutes,suggests that the four Black Hebrew Israelites might be more culpable than Covington students in instigating the apparent standoff than the initial footage suggests.”

Adults in KKK and blackface, teens “taunting” a Native-American

The two incidents are interesting because they both involve related issues, but reaction has been very different. Both involve, at least initially, white men and youth who are accused of racism. In one the alleged perpetrators of “taunting” were teenage Catholic youth who were wearing pro-Trump hats. In another a governor who was accused of appearing in a racist photo when he was in his mid-twenties.

But the reaction was very different. There were immediate calls for attacks on the teens. People even posted their schools address. They were accused of racist chants, that now appear to have never been made. Sandmann was excoriated for “smiling.” One write notes “The teen is smirking – his expression, for me, oozes entitlement. Behind him an unruly crowd – all male, all white, many also wearing the conspicuous Maga apparel – is jeering the elder in a frenzy of Lord of the Flies privilege.”

These are sixteen year old teenagers shoehorned into perfect villains of the “white privilege” era. They are forced to pay a kind of price for society’s overall indignation at white privilege. Even though they aren’t adults, the burden of history is assigned to them.

And yet, Northam, a governor, an adult, who actually had a yearbook with a photo of the KKK and a man in blackface, doesn’t face quite the same backlash. He has faced a backlash, as he should, but where is the zeal and anger? Why is an adult, a powerful, male, governor, given more of a pass than a 16-year old? Why does he get a press conference and deferential questions? Sandmann has to wait days for his time to come in the media when he could explain himself? One would think that a teenager, a minor, would get more than a governor. That he would get more excuses, not less.

Has American society found it easier to attack a 16-year old than a sitting governor and if so, why? Why did so many adults tweet the most graphic and hateful things against the Covington teens? Even if the story had turned out to be accurate, that the teens taunted a Native American, and there hadn’t been the context of them first being harassed by other adults, did it deserve the backlash it got? Similarly, the governor’s story seems quite clear. It was his yearbook, and he was called “coonman.” The new claims that he doesn’t know who is in the photo doesn’t really absolve a 25-year old adult in 1984 from taking some responsibility.

Does American rage-culture online tend to pick on the easy targets? Does it prefer the Covington teens to the adult governor because perhaps teens who can’t answer back are easier to target? What is this “punchable” culture online that felt it was normal to call to attack kids? What kind of culture finds teenagers a more welcome target for outrage than grown adult men? Why are teens given the burden of “privilege” but not adults.

Congress member Ilhan Omar even claimed the kids “were taunting five Black men” and made “racist chants.” She then deleted the tweet. Omar and Aslan and others who had slammed the Covington teens have not condemned the governor as of when this was posted on February 3. So why the outrage at one and not the other? Why the outrage over MAGA hats, but not KKK hats? Why the outrage over an actual, and clearly, racist photo, and an unclear video? Why the extreme outrage over a smirk, but not blackface? Blackface would seem to be more racist than smirking.

If the situation were reversed, and the governor and adult white men had taunted the Native-American, while it was the Covington teens who made a yearbook with a KKK costume and blackface, what would be the reaction. For some reason it’s hard to imagine that an adult governor taunting an activist would receive the kind of anger the teens received. And the teens would likely be slammed for the KKK photo in their yearbook more than a sitting governor. After all, Northam is only being called upon to resign, not much else. The Covington teens were calls names and accused of white privilege and other offenses. The governor, oddly, is not seen as a symbol of the same privilege.


Is it just about politics? The teens were at a pro-life rally and wearing MAGA hats, so they are seen as right wing. Not “boys will be boys” and not youthful bad antics, but they are asked to take responsibility as adults. Don’t support Trump. Period. That’s the message.

The governor, a Democrat, is depicted as less threatening than the teens. Yet he has more power. If this was really a story of white privilege or white men in power, then clearly the governor has more power. The teens don’t have much power. But there were assumptions that one day they would. Some said they would turn out “like Kavanaugh,” the Supreme Court justice, who as a nominee was accused of sexual assault. They are the future patriarchy, even though Northam is the present patriarchy.

Nevertheless, it still leaves one wondering if American society prefers the easy target, the teens, and not the adults. That’s why the “black Hebrew Israelites” who had accosted the teens were never the target of much anger online. Because they are adults. And for some reason some adults don’t seem to fit neatly into the outrage target. For whatever reason Northam doesn’t seem to fit the model either.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Seth Frantzman

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