The scandals involving Virginia’s political leaders are attracting the involvement and attention of academics nationwide and setting off new debates over racist histories, sexual assault and more.
The furor started over the admission by Virginia governor Ralph Northam that he had worn blackface in the past. But as more reports of blackface and racist photographs linked to politicians’ college days surface, so have allegations that Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, committed sexual assault. One of his accusers is a professor at Scripps College, currently on a fellowship at Stanford University, who has been a prominent figure in academic discussions of sexual violence. A second woman has now come forward, saying that Fairfax raped her when they were both students at Duke University and that a Duke official did nothing when she reported this at the time.
Meanwhile, more colleges are confronting images of blackface and other forms of bigotry in yearbooks, many of them after colleges theoretically started to welcome black students.
Backing in Academe for Fairfax’s First Accuser
Recent days have seen hundreds of political scientists rally behind Vanessa Tyson, the Scripps professor who first came forward with a public accusation about Fairfax. She says that he assaulted her in 2004, when they both were in Boston at the Democratic National Convention. (Fairfax has repeatedly denied this accusation.)
Hundreds of professors have signed a statement drafted by the Women’s Caucus for Political Science and #MeTooPoliSci.
Tyson “is known throughout the discipline for her willingness to stand up on behalf of the vulnerable, including early-career women, LGBTQ scholars, and scholars of color, and she has spent many years advocating for survivors of sexual violence,” the statement says.
The statement added that “we write as political scientists to remind those listening that the status quo favors power and privilege. In addition to being political scientists, many of us are also scholars of the politics of race, gender, and sexuality, and as such, we recognize the all-too-familiar tropes that are being deployed to try to shame, silence, and delegitimize Dr. Tyson.”
The statement also said, “As scholars we also know that decades of empirical evidence make clear that problems with reporting sexual violence are ones of under-reporting, not of fabrication, and that rates of reporting are particularly low for women of color. This evidence makes clear as well that people who report sexual assault stand to gain nothing and, in fact, risk a great deal. Vanessa has fought hard to carve out a career as a woman of color in academia. She has been incredibly successful, not only in terms of her external successes — as a tenured faculty member and the author of an important book — but more importantly, on her own terms. She has served as a mentor to many junior scholars and made a name for herself as what Representative Shirley Chisholm described so evocatively as an ‘unbought and unbossed’ person. Such a woman would not risk her career and reputation for anything less than a grave injustice. We therefore trust her when she says that a grave injustice has been committed.”
Allegations About Incidents at Duke
Then on Friday, another woman, Meredith Watson, came forward with a statement saying that Fairfax raped her in 2000 when they were both undergraduates at Duke. She said she came forward in part because of the way Fairfax was questioning the account of Tyson. Watson said that she saw similarities in what Tyson described and the way Fairfax treated her. (Fairfax has denied this allegation as well.)
Further, Watson issued a second statement in which she said that Fairfax had revealed that she had been a rape victim, separate and apart from her accusation about what Fairfax did to her.
In the second statement, Watson’s lawyer said in part, “We have heard from numerous press sources that in response to Meredith Watson revealing that Justin Fairfax raped her when she was a student at Duke, Mr. Fairfax has chosen to attack his victim again, now smearing her with the typical ‘she’s nuts’ defense. He revealed that Ms. Watson was the victim of a prior rape. That is true. Ms. Watson was raped by a basketball player during her sophomore year at Duke. She went to the dean, who provided no help and discouraged her from pursuing the claim further. Ms. Watson also told friends, including Justin Fairfax. Mr. Fairfax then used this prior assault against Ms. Watson, as he explained to her during the only encounter she had with him after the rape. She left a campus party when he arrived, and he followed her out. She turned and asked: ‘Why did you do it?’ Mr. Fairfax answered: ‘I knew that because of what happened to you last year, you’d be too afraid to say anything.’ Mr. Fairfax actually used the prior rape of his ‘friend’ against her when he chose to rape her in a premeditated way. Like he is smearing Dr. Vanessa Tyson, Mr. Fairfax is now smearing Ms. Watson.”
The statement did not identify the basketball player or the dean to whom Watson said she reported that she had been raped.
A Duke spokesman, via email, said, “We first learned of these allegations last night. The university is looking into the matter and will have no further comment at this time.”
Until recently, Fairfax served on the Board of Visitors of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. He no longer appears on the website listing members of that body.
Judith Kelley, dean at Sanford, sent out an email to those affiliated with the school that said, “I am writing to let you know that Justin Fairfax will be asked to step down from the Sanford School Board of Visitors pending the resolution of the serious and deeply distressing allegations that have been made against him. Sexual assault is abhorrent and unfortunately can occur right around us. I urge everyone to take survivors of sexual assault seriously, and to help build an environment that is safe and supportive for everyone.”
More Blackface in More Yearbooks
The scandals in Virginia started with the news that Governor Northam’s medical school yearbook featured a photograph (on his page) of one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam initially acknowledged being one of the two (he did not say which one). He then denied being in the photograph, but admitted to having worn blackface on another occasion.
Students following the Virginia controversies have been looking at yearbooks at their institutions, and many are reporting that they are finding blackface and other racist images.
One of the institutions confronting these reports is the University of Maryland at College Park:
Wallace Loh, president of the university, responded to the students posting the images with a tweet that said, “The images of blackface found in past UMD yearbooks are profoundly hurtful and distressing. Traditions like this reflect a history of racial prejudice and do not convey what we seek to embody today.”
Wake Forest University announced that a review of old issues of The Howler, the yearbook there, found lynching references, racial slurs and photographs of students in blackface.
Nathan O. Hatch, the president, said in a statement that, as a historian, he was disheartened but not surprised by what was found. “Wearing blackface is racist and offensive — then and now,” Hatch said. “The behavior in these images does not represent the inclusive university we aspire to be.”
While some educators and politicians have been unequivocal in condemning the use of blackface, past or present, others have not been.
In Mississippi, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves (a likely gubernatorial candidate) has been asked about photographs of a 1994 Kappa Alpha party at Millsaps College. He was a member of the fraternity at the time, and photographs as well as reports about the party indicate students were wearing Afro wigs and appearing in blackface.
Reeves declined to talk to The Clarion Ledger about the photographs, but a spokeswoman released this statement: “As a quick Google search will show, Lieut. Gov. Reeves was a member of Kappa Alpha Order. Like every other college student, he did attend costume formals and other parties, and across America, Kappa Alpha’s costume formal is traditionally called Old South in honor of the Civil War veteran who founded the fraternity in the 1800s.”