Ralph Northam refuses to resign as governor of Virginia after admitting to dressing up in blackface as a young man, after fumbling to explain a yearbook-page photo with blackface and a Klan outfit. Northam insisted on Friday that he would stay to dedicate the rest of his term to “racial healing.” He took the first step on that path by taping an interview for CBS This Morning over the weekend with Gayle King … and immediately stepped in it:
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam: "We are now at the 400-year anniversary — just 90 miles from here in 1619. The first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores in Old Point Comfort, what we call now Fort Monroe, and while—"@GayleKing: "Also known as slavery" pic.twitter.com/AiX96MU1rJ
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) February 10, 2019
“CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King corrected Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) after he referred to slaves as “indentured servants.”
The comment came in Northam’s first televised interview since he began facing calls to resign over a blackface scandal, in which he urged healing. …
Sunday’s exchange was called out on social media, with some Twitter users pushing for Northam to resign.
“Words like ‘Indentured servant’ is how people try to erase the pain and horrors of slavery. It is how they think it harmless to wear blackface,” wrote author Julissa Arce. “[Ralph Northam] is done. If he won’t resign, he needs to be forced out.”
“My god, it gets worse and worse,” responded another Twitter user curated in the report from The Hill. It’s tough to argue against that. The more Northam talks, the worse he makes his situation. Hasn’t anyone ever explained the First Rule of Holes to the governor?
The few Northam defenders still around have a ready defense for this, though, which is that Northam’s statement is accurate — while still managing to be wrong. Indentured servitude was an English tradition, and a surfeit of unemployed laborers back home made it a good option for the unemployed after the Thirty Years’ War, PBS explains. They began arriving from England in 1607:
Servants typically worked four to seven years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues. While the life of an indentured servant was harsh and restrictive, it wasn’t slavery. There were laws that protected some of their rights. But their life was not an easy one, and the punishments meted out to people who wronged were harsher than those for non-servants. An indentured servant’s contract could be extended as punishment for breaking a law, such as running away, or in the case of female servants, becoming pregnant.
For those that survived the work and received their freedom package, many historians argue that they were better off than those new immigrants who came freely to the country. Their contract may have included at least 25 acres of land, a year’s worth of corn, arms, a cow and new clothes. Some servants did rise to become part of the colonial elite, but for the majority of indentured servants that survived the treacherous journey by sea and the harsh conditions of life in the New World, satisfaction was a modest life as a freeman in a burgeoning colonial economy.
Four hundred years ago this year, as Northam states, the first “indentured servants” from Africa arrived when the labor force from England didn’t suffice. However, they did not come willingly, and it didn’t take long for “indentured servitude” to transform into explicit and intentional slavery:
In 1619 the first black Africans came to Virginia. With no slave laws in place, they were initially treated as indentured servants, and given the same opportunities for freedom dues as whites. However, slave laws were soon passed – in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1661 –and any small freedoms that might have existed for blacks were taken away.
As demands for labor grew, so did the cost of indentured servants. Many landowners also felt threatened by newly freed servants demand for land. The colonial elite realized the problems of indentured servitude. Landowners turned to African slaves as a more profitable and ever-renewable source of labor and the shift from indentured servants to racial slavery had begun.
Pedantically speaking, Northam’s statement is accurate — but only in the kind of hair-splitting manner that infuriates the people Northam proposes to lead in “healing.” Whatever small differences existed between the brief forced-indentured-servitude period and the two centuries of outright slavery for Africans that followed isn’t worth mentioning at all, especially with its implicitly minimizing context. Just by framing it in this manner, Northam’s proving that he’s everyone’s hopelessly out-of-touch Uncle Ralph at family reunions.
So how long does Northam get to embarrass himself in office? Surprisingly, there’s no big push in Virginia to force him out, not even among black voters, in this Washington Post poll. They want Herring to stay on, too:
Virginians are deadlocked over whether Gov. Ralph Northam (D) should step down after the emergence of a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page depicting people in blackface and Ku Klux Klan garb, with African Americans saying by a wide margin that he should remain in office despite the offensive image, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll.
The poll, conducted Wednesday through Friday, finds residents split over Northam’s fate, with 47 percent wanting him to step down and 47 percent saying he should stay on. Northam counts higher support among black residents — who say he should remain in office by a margin of 58 percent to 37 percent — than among whites, who are more evenly divided.
On the scandals buffeting the state’s other top elected officials, the poll by The Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University finds that about a third of Virginians think Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) should resign after he admitted wearing blackface at a party when he was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. A 60 percent majority say he should stay in office.
If a pollster asked the question right, we could see 47% of respondents demanding Trump’s resignation, too. You can bet that the numbers would be higher with black voters for a Trump resignation that with a Northam resignation, too. This suggests that the blackface scandals may be more of a tempest in a teapot for all Virginians, and that maybe Northam should shut up for a while now.
Update: I hadn’t realized that Northam’s staff had already defended the governor’s remarks — and used the same PBS article that I found on a quick DuckDuckGo search this morning. Twitchy picked up on it this morning:
A spokeswoman for Northam responded to questions about why he used the term indentured servants by pointing to news sources that described the first Africans brought to Virginia as indentured servants: https://t.co/zThF6oP8a5 https://t.co/JGT02GV5CJ
— Fenit Nirappil (@FenitN) February 10, 2019
It’s still not much of an argument. It’s technically accurate but historically misleading to use the term “indentured servitude” with Africans pressed into that status from the beginning, and for only a brief period before all-out and ghastly slavery that continued for two centuries.