The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I regret calling for Justin Fairfax to resign

Then-Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) presides over the state Senate on Feb. 7, 2019, in Richmond. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Sophia A. Nelson, a former House Republican Congressional Committee counsel, is the author of “Be the One You Need: 21 Life Lessons I Learned Taking Care of Everyone but Me.”

Former Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax (D) was once a shining, rising star in Virginia politics. A young, well-educated Black man with a lovely wife and beautiful children, all by his late 30s. A former federal prosecutor, with a spotless personal and ethical record and a great future ahead. Until the bottom fell out in early 2019, when two accused him of sexual assault decades prior.

He became a target for the #MeToo movement. But evidence has emerged recently that Fairfax might have been the victim of a coordinated smear campaign. A July Post article reported that the FBI is looking into the allegations. Fairfax has been appearing on any platform that will have him to clear his name. Unfortunately, he has had very few takers.

Thankfully, I was among the journalists who reviewed the new information, and I was stunned by what I learned. As a Black woman who was a victim of sexual assault as a young girl, I had immediate empathy for the women who accused Fairfax. After all, we should believe women when they share their stories. Right? Of course, but looking back now at how hard I was on Fairfax, I think I was wrong. I think we all were.

Like millions of women, I bought into the sensationalism. The sordid tale of alleged violence and Machiavellian political intrigue. What sealed the deal for me, though, was the “CBS This Morning” interview with Gayle King. Now, I see how cruel what we did to Fairfax and his family was. He was presumed guilty. He was labeled a “rapist.” He received no due process. No trial. No hearings. No investigation. He could not clear his name. To this day, he’s still trying.

That is the point: Once we get whipped into a media frenzy, common sense goes out the window. Fairfax isn’t the only one who has been hurt here in Virginia by our modern cancel culture. Another example is Monique Miles, a smart, Black female lawyer and former Virginia deputy attorney general, who claims in a recent lawsuit that she was the victim of a concerted conspiracy to defame and push her out of the attorney general’s office over a Facebook post supporting the Jan. 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington. Ironically other elected state GOP officials and staff attended the Jan. 6 rally. None was forced to resign. They were all White.

And then there is me: Three weeks into a historic scholar in residence at a Virginia public university with a poor record of enrolling Black students and hiring Black faculty and staff, I found myself embroiled in controversy, protests and petitions over a tweet about a question I asked during the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election in Virginia (which was partly decided on parental rights issues) about a Superman DC comic book character coming out as bisexual. It was, without a doubt, the worst experience of my over thirty year professional career.

We are three middle-aged African American professionals. We are a political mixture of moderate, liberal and conservative. We were all at the top of our professional careers, until we were not. For me, it was the “tweet” heard round the commonwealth, followed by an angry mob. For Fairfax, it was far worse: One day, he was likely going to be the next Virginia governor; then he was a political pariah.

Each of us had our stories go public in ways that were not what we deserved. Our reputations and future career prospects have been hard hit. Our once-unimpeachable characters and professionalism besmirched. People think because we still function, show up and keep living that somehow what was done to us is okay. It is not. However, as is our legacy, Black people under attack have perfected the art of resilience and perseverance. Yet, make no mistake, we three have suffered. We have been traumatized. Our families have been traumatized.

So what does it all mean: In Virginia, there are three Black women in positions of power: Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R), state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) and Commonwealth Secretary Kay Coles James (R) — the latter two are in their 70s. We have two Black members of Congress, both older than 60. We have yet to see a Black attorney general or a Black U.S. Senator in Virginia. And all of Virginia’s universities — other than our five historically Black colleges and universities and George Mason University and Old Dominion University, which have Black presidents — are sorely lacking in racial diversity of faculty and leadership.

More than 20 percent of Virginia’s population is Black. Virginia is the birthplace of American slavery. Virginia is one of only two states to elect a Black governor post-Reconstruction. Thus, Virginia must lead the way in how it protects racial diversity, free speech, and in how it treats its best and brightest. Giving three promising Black leaders the instant “career death penalty” is not a good example to set.

Sure, politics and academia have always been rough. Yet, something is now deeply amiss. We now play a game of gotcha. We silence differing views. We ban books we do not like. We tell women what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. We tell people they must conform to the prevailing view no matter their own beliefs or moral code. That is simply unsustainable in a free democratic society.

Shaming people and canceling careers never advanced civility or fostered mutual respect. Once someone is labeled a racist, a rapist or a homophobe, it’s over — without due process. Cancel culture is more than some catchy political phrase. It’s happening to people every day, and its effects are damaging and lasting. Trust me. I know.