Before he walked back his apology in his hour-long, extremely weird press conference Saturday, Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam seemed to understand how deeply awful the recently surfaced, very racist photograph on his 1984 yearbook page from Eastern Virginia Medical School actually was.
“This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service,” he said. “But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.”
I’m not sure Northam would, or should, have survived politically if he had continued to own up to it, sincerely apologized, and reached out to Virginia’s black community to fully understand what it means to them to be represented by a governor who has such a photo in his past.
What I do know is that, if he had taken that path, we might have saved several days of pain that will likely end in his resignation anyway. We might have also moved toward an actual, real reckoning with our past that the United States, and the American South in particular, has so long avoided.
Instead, Northam did two revealing things. First, he showed that he has no capacity to reckon with not only his past but the entire history with which he was raised. Northam’s contentions that he is not pictured in the offensive photograph, that he didn’t know about it until it surfaced in the news, and that he only recently learned about the pain wearing blackface might cause from a young black staffer and alleged friend all strain credulity. He is even more clueless if he expects anyone to buy that and give him a pass.
Second, he turned this particular conversation to wearingly familiar territory. His bizarre admission of another time he wore blackface, as Michael Jackson, in a talent contest in which he moonwalked seemed to come out of nowhere. But I think there’s a reason he admitted this: There are too many Southern whites who would not think wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume is wrong.
This particular, and utterly unjustifiable, ignorance surfaces every Halloween. A friend of mine, and blogger at NPR’s CodeSwitch blog, Gene Demby, calls Halloween “Blackface Christmas.” Nearly every year, a picture surfaces of a college or high school party in which white students have painted their faces dark as part of their “costume.”
Demby says some of this is due to a collective historical illiteracy as to the origins of blackface, which began in the 19th century when African-Americans were still enslaved. “[A]s lawyers often say, ignorance is not a defense. None of this history is particularly deeply hidden,” Demby told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly last year.
It’s difficult to believe that anyone in the photo from Northam’s yearbook page is ignorant of that history, however. The person in the picture is wearing blackface as part of what appears to be a Jim Crow minstrel costume, standing next to someone wearing the uniform of the Ku Klux Klan, an unambiguous display of racism. The photo actually engages with the ugliest parts of that history.
This took place in Norfolk, Virginia, which is one of the most populous and diverse areas of the state. The city of Norfolk itself is about 47 percent white and 43 percent black and is home to the historically black Norfolk State University.
For further context, the 1980s were a time of resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, after its membership had diminished the previous decade as a result of federal action against it. And students and activists were organizing against apartheid in South Africa, so race and racism were at the forefront of public conversation. By 1984, the divestment campaign began in earnest in colleges and universities across America.
Unlike South Africa, and other societies that have committed widespread atrocities, the United States, and the American South in particular, has never fully had to account for its own history. The country never paid reparations for the 400 years of free labor it brutalized African slaves into providing. After emancipation, many American blacks were trapped in communities where sharecropping and forced labor continued slavery in a barely disguised form.
None of that even counts the damage the Trump administration, racist in policy and in rhetoric, has done at a time when hate crimes are on the rise and white supremacy groups are resurgent. Let’s not forget, Northam defeated a neo-Confederate Republican, Corey Stewart, when he won office in 2017. A neo-Nazi killed Heather Heyer, a woman taking part in a peaceful march against hate, that very same year, in Charlottesville.
Yet every time a movement or an opportunity in the culture attempts to force white Americans to look at their past and present fully and truthfully—like the recent push to take down Confederate monuments across the country—defenders of white innocence wail about trying to erase the past. In reality, it is the refusal to acknowledge the past that continues to do harm.
That is why Northam’s attempts to brush past this so quickly are so damaging. In refusing to resign, he is also blocking the accession of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is black. Unless he is the least self-aware politician in history, he knows what he is doing. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said that changing his story had damaged his ability to regain any trust. “Our confidence in his ability to govern for the over 8 million Virginians has been eviscerated,” they said in a statement.
And they are right. The South doesn’t need another white governor who so conveniently forgets.