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“Controversy in the Commonwealth:” A Conversation with Prof. Fauntroy and Former D.C. Mayor Pratt

Tuesday, March 12, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: UDC Law Staff
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Michael Fauntroy
Professor Michael Fauntroy addresses guests about issues of racism and sexual assault in Virginia’s political leadership at UDC Law's Controversy in the Commonwealth.

UDC Law Acting Dean and Professor John C. Brittain hosted Professor Michael Fauntroy and former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt for a candid, interview-style conversation on the issues of racist images, racial bias, and sexual assault currently rocking the Virginia state political leadership. The law school community turned out in force to listen in as the distinguished panel led the audience in a wide-ranging discussion of the unfolding controversy, first set off in January by the release of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook entry depicting a man in blackface standing beside a man dressed in the robe of the Ku Klux Klan.

Walking the audience through the many developments since Gov. Northam’s yearbook release, the panelists detailed Northam’s subsequent admission to attending a part in blackface, the multiple allegations of sexual assault brought against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, state Attorney General Mark Herring's admission to wearing blackface in college, and the revelation that Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment was managing editor of a 1968 yearbook containing blackface and racial slurs.

Professor Fauntroy, who is Acting Director of the Ronald Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center and Associate Professor of Political Science at Howard University, opened the conversation with a powerful indictment of government officials who violate the public trust. “Without legitimacy you can’t be a real leader,” he said. “You need legitimacy from the people you claim to lead.” But Professor Fauntroy – who is one of the country’s most insightful political commentators on American politics, voting, and the intersection of racial attitudes and government – expressed doubt that any of the officials implicated would resign or face impeachment proceedings. “The conversation we’re having today should not end today,” said Professor Fauntroy, but he predicted that government officials would use the “cascading effects” threatened under the commonwealth’s line of succession, which runs straight through the four officials embroiled in the scandal, to shield themselves from political consequences.

Sharon Pratt
Former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt discusses the importance of considering historical context of current events at UDC Law's Controversy in the Commonwealth.

Former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt stressed the responsibility of Virginia voters to hold government officials accountable for misconduct, adding that Virginians should treasure the voting rights that D.C. residents have long been denied. Mayor Pratt is the founding director of the Institute of Politics Policy and History (IPPH), launched at UDC this January, and a longstanding presence in the law school community. Mayor Pratt taught at UDC Law’s predecessor school, the Antioch School of Law, from its 1972 founding through 1976.

Mayor Pratt spoke eloquently of the importance of placing current events in comparative political and historical context, highlighting IPPH’s mission “to rediscover the history of Washington and in so doing, the history of this nation, and to use that history to illuminate the policy issues of today.” At IPPH’s first-ever panel discussion, The History and Politics of Blackface, the Institute did just that. The Feb. 26 event brought together leading experts from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Anti-Defamation League to speak to the history, origins, and contemporary political import of racist imagery and symbols.

John Brittain
Acting Dean John Brittain offers his perspective on issues of racist images, racial bias, and sexual assault in Virginia politics at UDC Law's Controversy in the Commonwealth.

“You can’t afford to ‘play’ with symbols of terrorism and hate,” said Mayor Pratt, rejecting the tendency of public officials to ignore or navigate around the issue. “There is no question that the original intent of blackface was to dehumanize African Americans.” Picking up the thread, Professor Fauntroy described the continual resurfacing of racist imagery as “a kind of visual terrorism” linked to the confederate monuments and symbols that persist in the U.S. South.

Dean Brittain then turned the conversation to the question of whether the embattled Virginia politicians deserved a shot at redemption, as Gov. Northam and others have said. “We aren’t the best of what we do or the worst of what we do. But he can better himself somewhere else,” said Professor Fauntroy, referring to Gov. Northam. Professor Fauntroy went on to suggest the formal investigation of those officials caught up in the collective scandal, but he sees impeachment proceedings as unlikely due to the threat to individual state legislators who, in voting for impeachment, would expose themselves to scrutiny for similar misconduct.

The panel concluded on the question of whether any of the statewide officials mired in scandal would resign as a result. Each speaker predicted the officials would remain in office, saying that the looming threat of a constitutional crisis triggered by such a resignation would result in a stalemate.

John Brittain, Sharon Pratt and Michael Fauntroy
From left, John C. Brittain, UDC Law Acting Dean and Professor of Law; Sharon Pratt, former D.C. Mayor and founding director of the Institute of Politics Policy and History; and Michael Fauntroy, who is Acting Director of the Ronald Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center and Associate Professor of Political Science at Howard University.


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