Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax invoked decades of racist violence on Sunday when he likened recent criticism and calls for his resignation in the wake of sexual assault allegations against him to a “political lynching” during an unexpected speech before the Virginia Senate on the last day of the legislative term.
Fairfax made several references to lynching in the speech, which comes weeks after two women publicly accused him of sexually assaulting them in the early 2000s. His remarks also come just over a week after the state’s House of Delegates and Senate both passed measures expressing “profound regret” for the racially motivated lynchings that occurred in Virginia in the decades after the Civil War.
“We talk about hundreds, at least 100 terror lynchings that have happened in the Commonwealth of Virginia under those very same auspices,” Fairfax said, according to the Washington Post. “And yet we stand here in a rush to judgment with nothing but accusations and no facts and we decide that we are willing to do the same thing.”
Fairfax’s comments, which came as Virginia’s Republican legislators are calling for a public hearing into the sexual assault allegations, immediately raised eyebrows. The Post said the comments pitted “racial progress against the call of the #MeToo movement to ‘believe women.’”
In his remarks, Fairfax argued that his story is connected to the history of lynchings in America. “I’m happy to be just one representative example of whether or not we’re going to rise to the better angels of our nature or go back down a very dark political road, where 50 years ago, had fingers been pointed at me in the exact same way, it’d be a very different outcome,” Fairfax said.
The Post noted that Fairfax’s comments implied “that he would have been subject to extrajudicial violence,” despite both of the accusations against him coming from black women, a group whose claims had no bearing on lynchings, which were spurred by accusations made by white men and women.
In his speech, which positioned Fairfax’s political future as being closely connected to the future of Virginia, Fairfax made other direct references to racism and injustice as he discussed the importance of due process, directly referencing the current 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia as well as the due process protections of the 14th Amendment — one of three constitutional amendments passed after the Civil War.
“If we go backward, and we rush to judgment and we allow for political lynchings without any due process, any facts, any evidence being heard, I think we do a disservice to this very body in which we all serve,” Fairfax added.
The lieutenant governor’s remarks were some of his most aggressive in the weeks after the two women — Scripps professor Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, a schoolmate of Fairfax’s at Duke University — publicly came forward. Republican legislators condemned his speech.
Democrats, meanwhile, have largely remained silent. Many Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly have been navigating a tightrope since the allegations were made public. They’re currently grappling with a cascading series of controversies within the state party, after it emerged that both Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring wore blackface in the 1980s. So far, all three have refused to resign.
Some Democrats have voiced concerns that if Fairfax alone faces punishment, it will prove a double standard in how the party responds to allegations of sexual assault versus racism. Fairfax’s recent speech draws on this tension.
Fairfax’s reference to lynching calls to mind a painful history — one that high-profile black men accused of assault have invoked in recent years
As Vox’s Anna North has explained, Fairfax currently faces a pair of allegations. Tyson has accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex on him in 2004 while both were attending the Democratic National Convention, and Watson says that Fairfax raped her in 2000 while both were undergraduates at Duke.
Fairfax has denied the allegations and says both encounters were consensual. He has also called for the claims to be investigated by the FBI or other law enforcement.
Those calls have been echoed by other Virginia Democrats, who have largely avoided requests for public hearings into the issue, saying that hearings would quickly become a “political, partisan circus” and adding that they have concerns about a public hearing interfering with any police investigation. But by referencing lynchings on Sunday, Fairfax attempted to tie the allegations against him — both of which have been made by black women — to a long history of racial violence, one that recalls a time when a white woman’s accusation of sexual assault was enough to cost a black man his life.
Fairfax is not the first person to make this connection, as the Post notes. In the early 1990s, Clarence Thomas used the term “high-tech lynching” when the Senate Judiciary Committee raised the sexual harassment allegations brought against him by Anita Hill while he was a Supreme Court justice nominee.
Defenders of both comedian Bill Cosby, who was convicted of sexual assault in April 2018, and musician R. Kelly, who was recently indicted on 10 counts of sexual abuse, have also argued that the men were both victims of “public lynchings.”
But it’s worth noting that these specific cases often — if not exclusively — involved black men facing accusations of assault from black women, a fact that undercuts the effort to invoke the racist history of lynching.
And in pointing to lynching to deal with accusations of assault, critics say these men also minimize the harm this practice has had on black communities that were exposed to lynching and its aftermath. It has raised arguments that recent claims of lynchings in the wake of sexual assault allegations are often crudely and ignorantly applied, dismissing black accusers who already struggle to have their allegations heard in an effort to cast the men they’re accusing as the true victims of a racist America.
In comments to the Washington Post, Fairfax spokesperson Lauren Burke tried to distance the politician from these examples, arguing that his comments “stand on their own” and that the lieutenant governor only mentioned lynchings to highlight the importance of due process.
“There has been no investigation whatsoever,” of his case, she said. Burke declined to offer additional comment to Vox.
Virginia voters and legislators are divided over what should happen to Fairfax
For now, Fairfax has resisted the calls for him to leave office.
Initially, Virginia Democrats hesitated to call for Fairfax’s resignation, instead echoing requests for due process and an investigation. When Watson’s allegations were made public, some local politicians then called for Fairfax to resign, but when one Democrat proposed impeachment, those calls quickly receded.
In recent weeks, many Democrats — likely aware of the optics of forcibly ousting Fairfax, just the second black statewide elected official in Virginia’s history, who had until recently been called a rising star — have emphasized calls for an investigation from law enforcement.
Republicans, however, have announced that they want to hold public hearings where Tyson, Watson, and Fairfax all testify. In recent days, Watson and Tyson have both indicated interest in speaking publicly, but Tyson has said she will only participate if there is bipartisan support. Neither woman has publicly responded to Fairfax’s recent speech.
For now, with the Virginia General Assembly’s recent session now over, what happens next remains unclear. Public opinion polling has shown that Virginians are split on whether Fairfax should leave office, with more white voters than black ones supporting Fairfax’s resignation.
But with his recent remarks, Fairfax may find that he’s opened himself up to more criticism. “This is kind of a subtle way of making people choose between being anti-racist and being anti-sexist,” Rutgers University professor Salamishah Tillet told the New York Times on Sunday. “Black women are being cast as white lynch mobs. That should be a cause of deep alarm.”