I spent quite a few years in Virginia and have relatives who still live there, and the recent revelations that both the governor* and the state attorney general both donned blackface in the 1980s don’t surprise me at all. Today, we think of Virginia as a ‘purple’ state trending blue, but it wasn’t always like that–and the change has been extremely rapid. Add to that it was also ground zero for the rise of the fundamentalist right. Its ‘blueness’ is very recent. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t lived there just how racist some white people were back then. I’m sure some (maybe many) of them are still racist, so it’s more accurate to say racist and unabashed about it (at least around those white people who ‘knew how things really are’).
Once something becomes pervasive enough, it becomes very difficult to not be a part of it; it permeates everything. Charles Dew’s The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade describes this phenomenon very well. By the 1980s, Virginia was better in that racism wasn’t everywhere and there was some stigma attached to it, but the racism and the racists didn’t go away; some reformed their ways, others learned to keep quiet, but others, well…
There’s also a class component to this: blackface was quite common at Virginian** colleges and universities. I heard about it from slightly older friends who attended these institutions (again, the people doing this were quieter about it than they had been previously), but it was fairly common, and it was an elite activity (or aspiring to be elite).
All that said, does anyone think these are the only two white Virginian politicians who did this? I sure as hell don’t***. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the white men in their fifties and sixties (and older) were adjacent to this, if not outright participants (whether or not incriminating evidence can be found years later is a different matter). Maybe some enterprising soul could commit some journalism and ask every state representative and senator if they have ever donned blackface. It would be revealing.
In other words, a large swathe of the Virginian political elite came of age in a very racist place–and too many of them didn’t rise above it.
*I don’t have the time to see what Northam has most recently claimed, so I’m sticking with this.
**It happened in many places, but was very common in Virginia.
***OK, I would be shocked if Lee Carter, the 31 year old socialist who beat one of the most powerful members of the VA House ever wore blackface, but who the fuck knows? The only people I’m categorically ruling out at this point are black people.