Governor Northam’s Troubling Silence on Racism
Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia should resign. Not because he most likely wore blackface in the 1980s. He should resign because in 2019 he seems unwilling to address how, or whether, his views on race have evolved. His silence demonstrates a lack of integrity, and it’s disrespectful to one-fifth of Virginia’s electorate, the 87 percent of black Democrats whose votes heavily contributed to his election in 2017.
Recently, the governor equivocated when reporters confronted him about his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page, which had a picture of someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan robe. He also revealed that on a different occasion he had worn blackface — or face-paint, as he has callously called it. (At least two other top Virginia officials are mired in blackface scandals.)
By the 1980s everyone understood that blackface fell into the category of socially unacceptable behavior. That’s why most of these pictures were taken at parties or appeared in predominantly white spaces, away from public scrutiny.
Governor Northam’s page in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.
Blackface was never about mimicking black people. White entertainers wore it to amuse white crowds by playing into the most offensive and dehumanizing stereotypes. It is not simply the darkening of one’s face to look more like black people. It also involves exaggerating the physical features and movements of black people to the point of absurdity. Even if your grandparents took you to a vaudeville show decades ago, you have to know that these racist spectacles are deeply offensive.
Mr. Northam was born in 1959. At his birth, a vast majority of children in the nation attended racially segregated schools. I would be shocked if he had not internalized the racist views of so many whites during that time.
But Mr. Northam was an adult when these photos were taken and he is now a Southern Democrat, surrounded by black Democratic officeholders and voters. Why can’t he explain whether his views have evolved such that he could acknowledge that what he did was wrong?
Instead, the governor has made himself look worse. He told us that he has black friends, which is a standard retort for most whites accused of racism. He hid away from the public, hoping that attention and emotions would dissipate. He became obstinate with people who simply wanted an explanation.
This is how a person behaves when he does not understand the weight of American racial history, the role it continues to play or the racially divisive moment we are in.
It’s possible that African-Americans in Virginia and around the nation might have allowed Mr. Northam to redeem himself if he had pre-emptively shared the photos and sat for an interview explaining why he did it then and why he knows it is wrong now.
We could have benefited from a mature, straightforward conversation about how a person sheds bigotry. Instead, the nation now believes him to be a stubborn racist who refuses to leave long after the people have decided they have had enough of him.
There’s a huge double standard here. African-Americans are constantly expected to distance themselves from anyone white people view as problematic. President Barack Obama’s association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright nearly cost him the Democratic nomination, although we now know that Mr. Wright’s sermons were edited to be inflammatory. In the past few months, Tamika Mallory, a co-founder of the Women’s March, has been shunned by many of her peers because she attended a Nation of Islam event and took photos with the organization’s leader, Louis Farrakhan.
And black people have to give a public account. President Obama gave his most important speech on race in response to his pastor problem. Ms. Mallory did a press tour in an effort to explain her behavior. There was no way forward except through a public baring-of-their-soul for wary whites. Mr. Northam, whose problem is actual racist acts, not association with racists, has refused this process. Sadly he doesn’t realize that this process could have made him an even better candidate and better ally of his African-American constituents.
White Americans have to get beyond defensive responses when their views about race are questioned and begin to articulate their views. Race is a policy issue just like international affairs, health care and trade. If politicians take the time to become articulate on those issues, they should do the same on race. This is particularly true for white Democrats, whose voting coalition at the local, state and federal levels largely comprises people of color. They owe it to the people who put them in office.
Feb. 11, 2019
Feb. 8, 2019
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It is too late for Mr. Northam now; his case is too far gone and his chance to turn it around is lost. But something like this will happen again, so this can be a teachable moment. It is not O.K. that you were once a racist or a homophobe or xenophobe; but it also doesn’t have to be the end of your story. You need to be able to explain the journey from bigotry to inclusion. And if you cannot, we are all left to conclude that there has been no journey or that the journey has not progressed far enough.
Melanye Price (@ProfMTP) is a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University. She is the author, most recently, of “The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race.”
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