Northam No Longer Has Virginia’s Confidence

Confidence in Ralph Northam’s ability to function as governor of Virginia and to represent residents of the Commonwealth as a principled and progressive force for change came to an abrupt halt on Friday evening when a sickening, racist photo from his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page hit the news. One person in the photo appeared in blackface, a cruel device used for many decades by white Americans to reinforce hateful stereotypes of African-Americans. The second wore a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood — representing a domestic terrorist organization that murdered thousands of African-Americans, burned crosses in the yards of petrified families and systematically suppressed the civil rights of black Americans for decades.

At first, Northam acknowledged that he was one of the two people in the photo and issued a public apology, but then on Saturday, Northam walked back his initial apology and changed his story, claiming that he was not, in fact, in the photo. However, he admitted to once using shoe polish to darken his face for a Michael Jackson costume, also in 1984.

It is appalling that a group of grown adults, privileged enough to attend medical school as recently as 1984, thought that such behavior was acceptable. I don’t know whether or not Northam was actually in the photo, and to be sure, his 180-degree reversal is suspicious. But either way, the photo appeared on a yearbook page for which Northam surely must have given some degree of consent; it was designed to represent his tenure in medical school. Not only did the young men in the picture — including Northam, assuming he was one of them — think that dressing as they did was admissible, they apparently lived in a milieu where no shame was associated with their actions. Because the photo appears on his yearbook page, Northam evidently thought, “I’ll make this the image I share with the students, faculty and staff of my medical school — the one that they remember me by.”

To say that I’m deeply disappointed in the candidate who I was thrilled to meet in person at Market Square in Alexandria, VA in the summer of 2017 and whom I endorsed in a column for the Old Gold & Black later that fall is insufficient. I own the fact that I wrote that column, but the fullness of time has proven me wrong. Furthermore, I agree wholeheartedly with the cacophony of Democratic voices — including Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and all Democrats in the Virginia delegation to the U.S. Congress — who have called for the governor to resign. 

There is no path forward for Northam’s governorship. He has rightly been disowned by his fellow Democrats, and the Democratic caucuses of both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly have stated that he no longer has their confidence. Democrats’ swift, severe and unified reaction is reassuring. They have said that past misconduct made failed Senate candidate Roy Moore, Justice Brett Kavanaugh and above all President Donald Trump unfit to serve, but they are holding their own to account as well. This isn’t about politics, it’s about right and wrong. It doesn’t particularly matter what Trump-era Republicans such as the likes of Rep. Steve King of Iowa can or cannot get away with. Outraged by the racism and bigotry that appears to rule the day, Democrats can react by holding public officials (including their own) to a higher standard. We are cleansing ourselves for the sins of Trump, for we are better than Trump makes us appear to be.

I do not consider Northam to be irredeemable. His public life, particularly as an Army doctor during Operation Desert Storm, has been admirable. And he has an important string of accomplishments as governor.  But it is not fair for him to tell Virginians — especially black Virginians, 90 percent of whom cast their votes for him — that he will continue to hold the Commonwealth’s most powerful job now that he has utterly lost all of our trust. A more decent course is available to him: resign the governorship in a way that makes evident the indelible stigma of white supremacy, leave the governorship in the hands of the constitutionally designated next occupant, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, and devote his life’s work to combating the scourge of racism as a private citizen.

This past weekend, Northam reopened wounds in Virginia that are beyond his capacity to heal. My home state will be grappling with the aftermath of this revelation long into the future, but if the governor does the right thing, Fairfax will help us navigate the days and weeks to come, as Virginia’s second African-American governor. Tom Perriello, a former U.S. Congressman representing Richmond and Northam’s Democratic primary opponent in the 2017 election, expressed the Commonwealth’s fraught racial history best, writing on Twitter: “Are we the birthplace of American democracy, or American slavery? The first state to elect an African-American governor, or the capital of the Confederacy? This is the duality of Virginia.”