In a nutshell, Virginia is not a state where we can tolerate even the hint of a “racist” governor.
Virginia is where America started in 1607. It is the colony that birthed all the other 12. It is where American slavery began. In fact, this year the Commonwealth will remember, discuss, commemorate and dissect the 400-year anniversary of the birth of slavery in Virginia in 1619. It is an important discussion that we must have if we are ever to fully grasp the impact, the moral stain and human devastation left on Africans who came here against their will, and became African-Americans, who had to fight for equality and acceptance in a nation they built for free.
Virginia is the birthplace of great American presidents and founding fathers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison, James Monroe. All slave owners. Ours is a state like none other. This was Robert E. Lee’s home. This was the capital of the confederacy during the Civil War in Richmond. Ours is where openly racist young white men bearing torches marched and rioted in the city of Charlottesville, leaving one young woman dead. That happened in 2017, not 1967. Ours is the state that forbade a white man and a black woman, Richard and Mildred Loving, from “loving” one another. And it took the United States Supreme Court to strike down Virginia’s miscegenation laws and declare that marriage is a fundamental right not to be usurped by color, or creed.
Fast-forward to today. Although sitting Gov. Ralph Northam is “sorry” for what he did as a 20-something-year-old medical student in 1984, it is still very relevant in 2019. This was a grown man, not a prep school boy dressing up crudely with his friends. A medical student, preparing for a profession sworn to serve all people, regardless of race or creed. He was old enough to lawfully have a beer, or serve in the military, and he was damn sure old enough to know better than to dress in black face or don a Klansman costume (we do not at this point know which one he was).
This is a test not just for the Democratic leadership in our beloved Virginia, where both of our U.S. senators have issued tough statements condemning the photo, but stopped short of calling on Northam to resign. And the sitting lieutenant governor, who is black, and the state’s two black congressmen have yet to speak. The NAACP has called for Northam to resign. But the state’s black caucus said they “felt betrayed” and again fell short of calling on Northam to resign. Beyond the test Virginia’s leaders must pass, this is a test for the nation. Do we tolerate people in public service who have shown past racial intolerances, bigotry or prejudices?
We know there is a delicate balance between letting people be human, and err, and grow beyond their past beliefs. And also drawing a line around what we all know is unacceptable: Sexual assault is never OK even if the boy was “young” or “drinking.” Racist slurs and animus and mocking historically oppressed people are certainly not against the law, but they are against God’s law.
Where I come down on this as a citizen who has lived in Virginia now for more than half of my life is simple: Gov. Northam must resign. He deceived all of us about who he is. All the while throwing racial stones at his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie.
To me Northam is more dangerous than a President Trump who openly tells you who he is and what he thinks about “shit hole” countries, “rapist” Mexicans, and black women who are dogs (i.e., Omarosa). Northam smiles and is all the while a villain. There had been hints about who Northam was, underneath the calm demeanor and gentlemanly manner. He and his running mates in the Democratic Party often left Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is black and a descendant of slaves, off flyers and other material during the 2017 campaign. Northam is no different than any other slick politician who knows he needs the black vote to win. So he glad-hands, he makes bold proclamations, and behind the curtain there is “a past” we all missed.
Remember your Shakespeare: The past is prologue. That is why we go and dig into the background of our judicial nominees. Of our candidates for high office. Of our corporate executives, and college presidents. Virginia has a thorny past on race. We have come a long way, no doubt. But we still have far to go. Gov. Ralph Northam lost my respect this week with his stance on late-term abortion. Now he has lost the respect, I pray, of all Virginians, who understand this is not who we want our Commonwealth to be.
Sophia A. Nelson is the author of E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America (2017).