North Carolina shares a border, history and culture with our neighbor to the north. And we can’t help sharing the distress that many there are feeling about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and recently revealed evidence of racial insensitivity that have many calling for his resignation.
Late last week, a photograph surfaced from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook that depicted, on a page devoted to him, a white man wearing blackface standing next to a white man wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. Their pose seemed to be a pathetic attempt at humor. But there’s nothing funny about clear trappings of racist violence and oppression.
The Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus said in a statement: “After seeing the yearbook pictures … we were shocked, saddened and offended. Virginia has a complicated racial history and past, and those pictures certainly reflect that. Blackface was used to ridicule African Americans and the Klan was a source of terror and intimidation.”
Northam quickly apologized. But the next day he claimed that he had apologized before seeing the photo, and since seeing it, he realized that neither man was him. In another bizarre twist, Northam claimed that he had worn blackface on another occasion — as part of a costume emulating singer Michael Jackson during a dance contest.
The whole episode is as baffling as it is troubling. The Washington Post reported, “Northam has been admired by Democrats and Republicans alike in Richmond. His decade in public life, preceded by 15 years as a pediatric neurologist, has been unblemished by scandal, dishonesty or excessive partisanship; Republicans in Virginia’s legislature once tried to recruit him to switch parties.”
But no one’s asking for him now. His staunchest supporters, including members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, for whom Northam served as lieutenant governor, say their faith in his ability to lead the state has been shattered. National party leaders also are calling on him to resign.
Northam’s reaction, also, seems particularly tone-deaf. He came close to demonstrating Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk” at his news conference on Saturday, until his wife pointed out that it would be inappropriate. The chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus said Sunday that Northam “still does not understand the seriousness of his actions.”
It’s commendable that Northam’s supporters have condemned his actions rather than try to paper them over, as often happens in politics. Sometimes the temptation of power takes priority over what’s good for the country or, in this case, the state.
Some of Northam’s Republican critics have stood by members of their party despite their obvious racist leanings. U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa comes to mind. And now an allegation of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the man who would be Northam’s successor, if he steps down, has resurfaced.
But none of that excuses Northam. As of Tuesday, Northam said he intended to stick it out and wants a second chance to prove himself. That would require attention and energy that any governor would prefer to direct toward other, more important matters.
His state would be better served by his resignation.