Virginia Officials: Should They Stay Or Should They Go?

Jayna Rohslau, ‘22

You could say he was digging his own grave.

In 1984, Ralph Northam made a crucial mistake whilst attending Eastern Virginia Medical School. The 25 year old Northam would later become the Governor of Virginia (good for him) and become known for a series of scandals casting his name in a negative light (considerably less so).  At this tender young age, however, he was unaware of these future problems and found it suitable to select a photo depicting blackface for his school yearbook.

Gov. Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School Yearbook. The picture on the right depicts a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood. The quote below the picture depicts a profound piece of human insight. Photo credit: Eastern Virginia Medical School

Gov. Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School Yearbook. The picture on the right depicts a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood. The quote below the picture depicts a profound piece of human insight. Photo credit: Eastern Virginia Medical School

Later, it would come back to haunt him. Alarmed by his comments supporting late-term abortion in a bill, some former classmates saw fit to send the photo to Big League Politics, a website that first published it on February 1st. As several news outlets put it, Northam was not having a good week. The backlash was enormous, and even more so when after apologizing for appearing in the photo he denied appearing in the photo. This blunder might be excused as a case of forgetfulness, amnesia or even brain damage. Yet further inspection made it clear this racism was by no means an anomaly from his school days: his yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute identified him by the racist nickname of “Coonman,” while Northam himself admitted to putting black shoe polish on his face in order to be Michael Jackson for a dance contest. From there on out, Northam’s good name was all but history as Democratic and Republican officials alike called for his resignation. Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton even tweeted about it: “There is nothing to debate. He must resign.”

Debatable. When considering this topic, one should also consider the meaning and implications of blackface. In our current society, we have an understanding that it enforces harmful stereotypes of black people, as it does. However, this was not viewed as the case in 1984 when Northam was attending medical school, rather it was more a topic of crude humor than anything else. And it was certainly not uncommon. After Northam was exposed to be a racist college student, his two potential successors were taken into consideration: Mark Herring and Justin Fairfax. Mark Herring, the Democratic Virginia Attorney General, called for Northam’s resignation. Then revealed that he himself wore blackface to look like a rapper for a party. Certainly blackface can have harmful effects on those who feel victimized it, but ultimately it is not a crime that can be tried in court, and hardly on the scale of sexual assault, as Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax has long been accused of. Calls for his resignation came too, but he is African-American and in the words of the New York Times, it would be “an excruciating choice to impeach an African-American leader at a moment when the state’s other two top leaders, both white, are also resisting calls to quit after admitting to racist conduct.”  

Complicating the issue further is the opinions of the black people of Virginia, who you might think would be Northam and Herring’s greatest critics as the people presumably the most offended by their misconduct. This isn’t the case, either. Virginians as a whole are split evenly about whether Northam should resign, but 58% of blacks want him to stay with 37% who want him out. It would even seem, bizarrely, that more white people are offended by the blackface than the black people themselves. Rev. Kelvin Jones, a black pastor for a church in Virginia’s Northampton County, was quoted by multiple sources saying that his congregation was open to forgiving Northam for his 34-year blackface performance and that the church believes in “giving people another chance.” Virginia’s black community is more divided when it comes to Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and his sexual assault allegations. Many say that he ought to resign if his crimes are for real, but others wonder if race is playing a part in why calls for his resignation are greater than that of his white counterparts. I doubt that: it is important to remember the weight of the crimes involved. Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring have been guilty of racism and discriminatory practices in their youths, and Northam, in particular, is guilty of extreme and excessive stupidity in failing to properly address said racism. All of which is in a completely different category than sexual assault as the Lieutenant Governor has been accused of. Only time and a possible FBI investigation will tell if he is actually guilty of said crimes, but I hope that I do not have to explain in depth why this is a more serious problem. It is one thing to have a fool in power (and consider this: both Northam and Herring were liberal and certainly not publicly expressing any racist attitudes) and quite another to have a possible rapist.  

This is not to deny the detrimental effects of racism. Discrimination has a pronounced effect in America that is visible today, whether that be in being passed over for jobs or in the palpable tension between African-Americans and police officers. The point is, there is too much attention on what happened 34 years ago, and too little attention on working to raise social awareness today. We live in a time and place where racism is considered a terrible crime, yet we are not working to address these influences to the best of our ability- influences that led people like Ralph Northam to dress up as Klansmen, believing them to be funny.  Instead, we dismiss and belittle these influences, making people afraid to confront their wrongdoings and own up to mistakes today lest they be slaughtered.

So, should Northam and Herring resign?  It is not up to me, but the least they could do would be to own up to their mistakes and avoid making more. Northam has done a wonderful job at the latter so far; only time will tell what will happen as the farce continues.