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Thriller or Beat it: In a racially charged Virginia, will Governor Ralph Northam survive blackface scandal?

in Politics & Social Justice by

The upheaval of Virginia’s political climate seems to be far from calming down.

In November 2018, Ralph Northam (D-VA) won the state’s gubernatorial elections with an overwhelming majority of the Black vote. Now, he is connected to a racist photo in his medical school yearbook. Featuring two white men in racist regalia — one in a Klu Klux Klan uniform and the other in blackface, an afro and a boater hat — Northam is in the hot seat and might be dethroned.

In response to the medical school photo surfacing, Northam flip-flopped. At first he apologized for being in the photo, but never confirmed which one of the two  men were him.

In a February 1, 2019 statement, he said:

Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive.

I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.

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. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.

Northam’s photo scandal shows a state with deep roots divided by white and Black racial lines. Virginia carries the marks of a past that profited from slavery then enforced segregation laws.

Throughout Virginia’s racially charged past, domestic terrorism against Black communities was normalized. One of several major white supremacist organizations that terrorized African-Americans were the Klu Klux Klan. Today, they still hold rallies in Richmond, the state’s capital, which makes Northam’s connection to the photograph a troubling reminder for some Virginians.

On February 2, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, an African-American, released a statement in response to the racist snapshot:

Like so many Virginians, I am shocked and saddened by the images in the Governor’s yearbook that came to light yesterday.

They are an example of a painful scourge that continues to haunt us today and holds us back from the progress we need to make.
As we commemorate 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia, it is painful to experience such a searing reminder of the modern legacy of our nation’s original sin. And, as someone whose great-great-great grandfather was enslaved in Virginia, this episode strikes particularly close to home.

The Governor needed to apologize, and I am glad that he did so. He also reached out to me personally to express his sincere regrets and to apologize.

In January, the Friday leading up to the long weekend of the federal holiday of Martin Luther King, Jr., Fairfax sat outside the upper chambers of the Senate in protest of the tribute to Confederate soldier Robert E. Lee. Northam participated in the ceremony.

Man in the Mirror

Northam with wife Pam at press conference re-stating his position on controversial blackface photo from his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page.

With the growing pressure for Northam to step down, his fate seemed sealed. However, in a plot twist, Northam recanted his initial statement at a follow up press conference with his wife, Pam Northam, by his side. In his speech, he claimed that he never purchased or saw the yearbook, and that it was not him in the photo.

According to Northam, who received 81 percent of Black men and 91 percent of Black women votes in November 2018 elections, after he “reflected with his family and classmates,” about his page, he determined that it was not him in the photo. Yet and still, he has not provided an identity of the racist-clad costumers.

“My belief that I did not wear that costume or attend that party,” he stated.

However, Northam did admit to wearing blackface makeup from shoe polish in which he donned a Michael Jackson costume and moonwalked during a 1984 dance contest in San Antonio.

Rather than leave office, Northam says he wants to “. . . heal that pain, and . . . make sure that all Virginians have equal opportunity.” Aides of Governor Ralph Northam have recommended that he read Alex Haley’s, “Roots,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ journalism piece, “A Case for Reparations,” as the beginning of racial sensitivity training.

Charlottesville, Virginia – August 12, 2017: White nationalists and counter protesters clash in during a rally that turned violent resulting in the death of one and multiple injuries. Photo credit: Kim Kelley-Wagner

Virginia’s tumultuous political landscape happens less than two years after white nationalist rallies overran Charlottesville. In the multi-day marches, protestors clashed with anti-white supremacist demonstrators which spilled over into violence and mayhem that led to multiple injuries, arrests and fatalities.

After the Charlottesville rioting, Virginia experienced record number candidates of color, including women, running and winning offices throughout the state. Charlottesville elected its first Black woman mayor, Nikuyah Walker, who is an independent.

Even with the bizarre turn of events, Northam may have escaped the ire of a political storm. Fairfax faces a possible impeachment with two sexual allegations against him following an outed Northam.

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