Governor’s racial miscue could’ve been ignored but for his campaign rhetoric

February 16, 2022 12:02 am

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, on the floor of the Virginia Senate. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Teeth-grinding annoyance.

That’s what comes to mind as I ruminate over Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s gaffe last week, after he mixed up the identities of two African-American female senators. Since there are only three – three! – in the 40-member Senate, the odds were in his favor of getting it right. 

Maybe he shouldn’t gamble.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said the guv had texted early last week to compliment her comments on Black History Month. Except Sen. Mamie Locke, a Hampton Democrat, actually made the speech. 

Lucas told him about the error, the new officeholder apologized, and all seemed copacetic. No harm, no foul.

Lucas publicized the faux pas on Twitter, though, after the administration and his fellow House Republicans on Friday tried to save a Cabinet pick by threatening to unseat 1,000 Democratic appointees on state regulatory and governing boards. The gambit was an unprecedented move, The Washington Post reported. 

“Study the photos and you will get this soon!” Lucas tweeted Friday night, posting pictures of herself and Locke. No one should ever confuse the two women by their looks, hairstyle and more.

Lucas’ broadside was overblown, of course. It was obviously political, meant to skewer the novice officeholder. Nor was Lucas’ dig connected to the jockeying over state appointees. 

Lucas has raised her social media presence since she’s now the highest-ranking Democrat in state government, as president pro tempore of the Senate. She’s been firing off tweets at a rapid pace.

Ben Tribbett, president of a political consulting firm that has Lucas as a client, told me her number of tweets and popularity has risen on social media. Progressives want to hear from her, he added. 

Lucas previously said Tribbett and other consultants post some of the tweets from her account, but Tribbett said she writes her own. “They’re approved by her, in her own voice,” he told me.

Yet Lucas also dipped into a reservoir of racial mistrust that Youngkin created himself, in the way he ran for office last year. He flogged the bogeyman of “critical race theory” on the campaign trail. He then signed an executive order on his first day in office banning the concept in public schools, calling it “inherently divisive.”

Conservatives have used the catchphrase to refer to race-conscious lessons and teacher training. Liberals counter this is an attack on actual U.S. history, warts and all, especially in educating students about the way Blacks, Native Americans and others have faced discrimination for centuries. 

There seems to be a repulsion to facts and historical accuracy. That’s antithetical to teaching. 

Youngkin’s executive order says, in part: “We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history – both good and bad,” including many of America’s key moments and movements. That positive goal, however, has been drowned out by his decision to start a tip line so parents can snitch on educators allegedly teaching those so-called divisive concepts. 

Regarding last week’s kerfuffle, a spokeswoman for Youngkin told me, by email, the governor’s version of what happened when he reached out to Lucas: “I had the floor speeches on while doing too many things at once earlier this week. I made a mistake and I apologized to Senator Lucas right away.” That’s understandable.

Macaulay Porter, however, declined to answer my question on how her boss would avoid such mistakes in the future.

Many Black professionals, including me, can recall a situation where a White colleague mistook us for someone else, even if we’ve been working in the same place for months or even years. 

Is it malicious? No. It’s aggravating, mostly. And if it happens just once, you can quickly forget it.

But the incidents leave a bad taste in your mouth. We’re often the minority (pun intended) in the newsroom, boardroom and office cubicle. We have to learn the names of many co-workers who don’t look like us; how come they can’t reciprocate? 

It’s as if getting the names and faces right of African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans isn’t worth the effort. That’s especially galling when the number of, for example, Black males in a company unit can be counted on one hand.

A 2019 article discussed the incessant irritation people of color in the office feel when people repeatedly err about who they are. “It kind of makes you feel invisible, because they don’t know who you are even though you are putting in this hard work,” one worker said.

Now, there is something called the cross-racial effect, a cognitive problem where there’s an impression that people of a race other than your own all look the same. Cross-racial misidentification is also an issue in the criminal justice system.

So Youngkin deserves a pass – but only to a point. He helped nurture a climate of division in the way he ran for governor last year, ginning up White voters by demonizing what’s being taught in K-12 classrooms. 

I reached out to Kevin Gaines, associate director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. He’s also a history professor there. 

Gaines noted race complicates human interactions in the United States. Layering politics on top of that heightens tensions.

Maybe Youngkin “meant well in complimenting a speech on Black history,” Gaines told me Tuesday, “but it hasn’t been long since he signed an executive order on critical race theory. 

“He’s really pandering in a cynical way to a vocal minority of White Virginians.” 

Gaines pointed out “it’s absurd on its face” that schoolchildren are being made to feel upset about what they’re learning. Roughly 80 percent of public school educators in Virginia are White, according to the state Department of Education. 

So Youngkin is trying to suggest, the professor noted, that White teachers in Virginia are trying to make White children upset about learning U.S. history? “That’s laughable,” Gaines said. “That’s how he campaigned.”

I’m sure the governor’s administration would point out instances such as asking students to play “privilege bingo” in Fairfax County, in which one of the criteria for privilege was being from a military family.

I’m not saying the guv’s error involving Lucas was catastrophic, or intentional. Given how Youngkin ran for office, though, he hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]