Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring Seeks Reconciliation After His Blackface Scandal: So Why Would He Defend Environmental Racism in Buckingham County?

Jonathan Sokolow
6 min readFeb 18, 2019

Earlier this month, Virginia became engulfed in a trifecta of scandals at the highest political levels.

On Friday, February 1, Governor Ralph Northam admitted that he appeared in his medical school yearbook in a photo of two people — one in blackface, the other in Ku Klux Klan garb. Northam did not specify which one was him. It also was revealed that Northam’s college yearbook noted his nickname was “coonman.”

One day after admitting to being either the blackface guy or the KKK guy, Northam held a bizarre Saturday press conference in which he reversed course. According to Northam 2.0, he was not one of the people in that photograph after all and he was sure of it because he had a vivid memory of a different act — putting on blackface while in residency training in Texas as part of a Michael Jackson “costume.” Northam volunteered that he had learned how to moonwalk and his wife had to intervene as Northam seemed poised to moonwalk during the press conference.

A few days later, Northam 3.0 was released. In an interview with the Washington Post, Northam admitted to having done “things” (plural) in both medical school in Virginia and in his residency training in Texas that were both “insensitive” and “offensive” (his words). To date, Northam has not explained what other “things” he did that were both insensitive and offensive.

As a result of this fiasco, civil rights organizations and many elected officials, including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, have called on Northam to resign.

Meanwhile Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax has been accused of sexual assault by two women, prompting virtually all elected officials in Virginia to call for his resignation.

Then, on February 6, five days after Northam’s first admission, Mark Herring made one of his own, saying that he too dressed in blackface while in college. Many called and are still calling for Herring to resign, something Virginia Democrats are loath to support because Herring automatically would be replaced by someone selected by Virginia’s Republican controlled legislature.

In his statement, Herring said, “this conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since.”

To be sure, Herring has staked out many progressive positions in his five years as Virginia’s Attorney General. These include challenging Donald Trump’s Muslim ban right after it was instituted, defending the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and it’s Clean Car Rule, promoting gun safety, and defending the Affordable Care Act.

Perhaps the best example of Herring’s willingness to use his position as Attorney General as a tool for social justice was one of his first acts after he was sworn in in January 2014. Virginia had been sued over it’s ban on same sex marriage, a suit which Herring’s predecessor, Ken Cuccinelli, was only too happy to defend. Herring came into office and promptly announced that he would not defend the gay marriage ban. Instead, Herring said that he would switch sides to defend the rights of the Virginia residents who had brought the lawsuit:

“As attorney general, I cannot and will not defend laws that violate Virginians’ rights…The commonwealth will be siding with the plaintiffs in this case.”

Which brings us to Union Hill.

Two days after Herring made his blackface admission, Virginia was sued in the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by Friends of Buckingham, a community group, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, over Virginia’s decision to approve a massive compressor station in the historic African American community of Union Hill in Buckingham County. The compressor station, intended to pump fracked methane gas through the $7.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, is the brainchild of Dominion Energy, the commonwealth’s monopoly energy utility. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been plagued by a string of federal court decisions that have thus far thrown out every federal permit that has been reviewed. Ralph Northam notoriously rigged the compressor station vote by the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board by dismissing two members right after they publicly raised questions about the project. Meanwhile, a national movement has developed to defend Union Hill, including such figures as former Vice President Al Gore and Reverend William Barber II, who come to Virginia on February 19 for “The Moral Call for Ecological Justice in Buckingham.” And the national media is starting to focus on the fact that in Virginia, the discussion needs to be about racist policies, not just pictures.

On February 13, two of Mark Herring’s assistants, Matthew Gooch and Michelle Kallen, notified the Fourth Circuit that Herring’s office will be defending Virginia in the suit over Union Hill. However, the case is in its early stages and the court has yet to set a schedule for the filing of briefs, which is when all parties will be making their respective arguments.

Which means that Mark Herring has a decision to make.

Northam and Herring’s blackface scandals and the brewing fight over Union Hill have placed the so called Virginia Way on full display, revealing a good old boys club that shares certain values and defends its own.

Take, for example, Dominion’s CEO, Thomas Farrell, who arguably is the most powerful man in Virginia, especially with the current hobbling of the top three state officials. Farrell famously made a Civil War vanity film that falsely glorified Confederate soldiers as progressive, anti-slavery, anti-racist patriots, leading reviewers to label the film a “pinnacle of revisionist bullshit.” Farrell was given $1 million in taxpayer funds by the administration of then governor and apparent presidential candidate Terry McAuliffe to help pay for his film.

Take Farrell’s brother-in-law, Richard Cullen, who himself reportedly was a member of an all-white club that excluded African Americans. Cullen has been selected by Northam’s medical school to lead the “independent investigation” into the yearbook photo scandal.

Or take the well healed donor class in Richmond. On the day that Northam’s blackface scandal broke, what the Washington Post referred to as “two members of Richmond’s business elite” rushed to the Executive Mansion to urge Northam not to resign. One of those donors, attorney Tom Slater, chairs the litigation group of Hunton Andrews Kurth, a big Richmond based law firm.

Slater’s firm is representing Dominion in the Union Hill lawsuit. In fact, Hunton has assigned at least five attorneys to the case.

Which raises this question: why would Mark Herring, having just admitted to donning blackface in his youth, decide to defend a clear cut case of environmental racism occurring on his watch while simultaneously trying to hold on to his job with the claim that he is a changed man.

As we wrote previously:

In 1869, an arsonist near Union Hill burned the Buckingham County courthouse, an historic building designed by Thomas Jefferson, to the ground. He did so to destroy the records that the recently freed slaves might have used to obtain their rights, including property rights.

That arsonist was never caught.

Now, almost 150 years later, Dominion Energy seeks to complete the work of that 1869 arsonist. And Ralph Northam just lit the match.”

Right now, Virginia is having a long overdue conversation about its ugly past and its unreconstructed present. And Mark Herring has a choice to make.

On one side stands Dominion, which is perpetrating this act of environmental racism, headed by a CEO who spent taxpayer dollars glorifying the Confederacy, represented by a litigation group the head of which is begging Northam not to quit over his own scandals.

On the other side stand the good people of Union Hill, an historic African American community that has champions inside Virginia and across the country, including Al Gore and Rev. Barber, but which is desperately in need of someone in Virginia who can actually stop the compressor station in its tracks.

In 2014, Mark Herring took a stand for marriage equality and thereby cast his lot on the right side of history. In 2019, he is faced with a similar choice with far reaching consequences. We will soon find out if his deeds match his words of regret.

Whether Mark Herring heeds the calls for him to resign or decides to stick it out, one thing is clear.

The road to reconciliation runs through Union Hill.



Jonathan Sokolow

Attorney, writer and activist living in Northern Virginia