On Friday, the first day of Black History Month, a racist photo from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s (D) 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page was released. The photo showed two men, one in blackface and another in a KKK hood and for a few hours, there were questions about whether either man was in fact Northam.
By late afternoon Friday, the governor had released a statement apologizing for participating in the photo and the hurt it’s caused people both then and now.
Apology or not, that incident from Northam's youth could well be enough to force the governor to give up the governorship. Despite his apology, calls from political leaders, including leading Democrats, for his resignation continued to swell. In fact, the Democratic Party of Virginia called for his immediate resignation. However, this morning he was refusing to resign saying he now does not think the photo in his yearbook includes him,
Whether he resigns or not, if there’s one fundamental truth about running for or being elected to political office it’s that every sordid detail of your past will come to light, whether it’s before, during or after the campaign. America’s highly charged, polarized political environment combined with today's technology virtually guarantees that your political opponents will work incessantly to expose your dirt and use it in any way they can to their advantage. This has proven to be true time and time again and it’s a festering, unsavory reality of our time.
It also is true that politicians should be fully aware of any potentially damaging or embarrassing information from their past that must be addressed, given this scrutiny in today's modern campaigns. This makes the photo of Northam disturbing because it suggests he either believed it wouldn’t be found, wouldn’t be politically damaging, or he simply forgot he even took the photo. All those scenarios are problematic.
Most people can relate to making a regrettable or embarrassing misstep in their past and those who are truly sorry for such behavior typically remember it well and view it as a pivotal moment of personal, moral failure. What then does it suggest that Northam didn’t divulge this extremely offensive personal failure, admit to being wrong about it and offer an apology? We can’t really know, but that’s perhaps even more troubling.
His Watershed Moment
The Northam revelations today are a painful reminder to Black Americans that racism isn’t specific to one political party. Candidates on both sides of the aisles have had past and present racist statements and actions come to light and abruptly end an otherwise promising political career. In fact, just last week, Florida’s Republican Secretary of State Mike Ertel resigned following a 2005 Halloween photo of him in blackface.
If the Governor is to remain in office, this is his watershed moment. His carefully crafted statement expressing regret is only the first step down the long road of atonement and reconciliation with the citizens of Virginia, who entrusted them with the state’s highest elected office.
Here’s the thing: some Virginians will see absolutely nothing wrong with what Northam did decades ago and believe that people should just let “bygones be bygones.” But if Americans are ever going to truly unite, we must confront the racism that remains prevalent and hurtful to people of color and most allies in the fight for racial equality.
In our society, we must not shirk the responsibility of addressing and repairing the damage done by past (or present) racist behavior and ideology.
Apology aside, Northam must definitively and honestly explain why his behavior was wrong and clearly demonstrate how decades later, he has evolved as a man and a moral leader. If he is unwilling or unable to do so, it’s difficult to see how he survives this, or even why he should.
Stacy Fitzgerald is a Washington, DC area Gen Xer whose obsessions include politics, traveling and food and wine ventures.