Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has admitted that he blackened his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance party. He also initially admitted that he was one of the participants in a racist photo — of one person dressed in full Klan regalia and another in blackface —that appeared on his 1984 yearbook page.
The next day, however, he reversed himself, saying it could not have been him, bizarrely arguing that given how difficult it was to get shoe polish off his face after the dance contest, he surely would not have done it again.
The governor apologized, noting: “In the place and time where I grew up, many actions we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace.” Yes, 1984 was a long time ago, but it was two decades after the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights laws, and three decades after Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional.
In 1984, I made my first run for the presidency. In 1985, Douglas Wilder became the first African-American elected statewide as lieutenant governor in Virginia, on his way to being elected governor four years later. Northam’s actions were offensive and wrong even at the time he committed them.
America’s long, sordid tradition of blackface minstrelsy — white people in blackface — was designed to burlesque black people, to portray them as dumb, grotesque and lascivious and was not incidentally part of propaganda for slavery.
The governor said that his actions then do not reflect his attitude, his views or his policies now or at any time throughout his military, medical and public career. All of us are sinners. Grace and redemption must be accorded to all who atone. I believe deeply that a person can be redeemed from a hideous past.
Northam’s record has been positive. In stark contrast to President Trump, he acted bravely during the racist protests in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer. Trump infamously embraced the proto-Nazi protesters, arguing that there were “good people on both sides.” Northam has advocated taking down the Confederate statues in Virginia.
In stark contrast to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, portrayed in an infamous picture celebrating the Confederate flag, Northam has pushed to advance voting rights in Virginia. McConnell recently scorned legislation to expand and defend voting rights as a “power grab” while defending Republican efforts to suppress the vote across the country.
Trump and McConnell remain in power, yet the right-wing talking heads who celebrate Trump and McConnell are condemning Northam, demonstrating not their virtue but their rapacious partisanship.
Trump and McConnell have plenty of company on their side of the aisle. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions contended the Voting Rights Act was “intrusive” on states’ rights.
Then there’s Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi. She was elected in November despite saying she’d happily sit in the front row of a “public hanging” if invited by a supporter. She didn’t say it 35 years ago. She said it a few months ago.
The recently elected Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, also played the race card with little to no blowback from his party. He warned the voters of his state not to “monkey this up” by electing his African-American opponent, Andrew Gillum.
And before narrowly defeating African-American gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Brian Kemp was the Georgia secretary of state and purged hundreds of thousands of Georgians from the voting rolls, most of them African-Americans.
As a practical matter, it will be impossible for Northam to lead the state of Virginia after this revelation. His press conference in which he denied what he had admitted the day before did not help his cause.
Our leaders must represent the values that we espouse and honor the diversity of the coalition that we seek to build. Virtually the entire leadership of the Democratic Party in the state has called on the governor to resign. He would be wise to accept their advice.