It is difficult to imagine what Ralph Northam was thinking three decades ago when he admittedly donned blackface for a medical school event, or on Saturday as he stood before a phalanx of cameras making a pained, at times astounding, statement about a photo on his medical school yearbook page of a man in a Ku Klux Klan uniform with another man in blackface. He'd previously admitted he was one of the two men in that photo, before reversing himself to insist he was not.
Democrats and Republicans from around the country have called for his resignation out of a mixture of political expediency, heartfelt disgust, and a crass—at times even laughable—attempt to assuage their own history of bigotry and racial animus. By early evening Saturday, a bipartisan group that included former presidential candidates and ambassadors, sitting members of the House and Senate, party honchos and activists from around the country had denounced Northam as unworthy of his office. They took back endorsements and called on him to immediately step aside. In the greatest of all ironies, the state’s well-qualified black lieutenant governor would then be sworn in to succeed him.
But the governor, flanked by his wife Pam, steadfastly refused to step down. Instead, he tried to salvage his job even as he said that he had indulged in a bit of racial satire on another occasion.
“I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks and the reason I used a very little bit because—I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried that—you cannot get shoe polish off,” he said. “But it was a dance contest. I had always liked Michael Jackson. I actually won the contest because I had learned to do the Moonwalk.”
Before medical school, at least one of his classmates at Virginia Military Institute had nicknamed Northam “Coonman,” as shown on his yearbook there. The governor, who claims to “vividly” remember his later moonwalking exploits, says he has no idea why. “I didn’t know their motives or intent,” he said. In the words of my late great Uncle Ross: Hogwash.
Northam had every opportunity to challenge both yearbook entries by 1984, when he was 25 years old, a third-year medical student and presumably in full charge of his faculties. He could have sued the school and the publishers for besmirching his good name. He could have filed for a civil injunction and demanded that every last copy of the book be destroyed.
And now a man who, in The Washington Post's summary, “built his political career on denunciations of his state’s racist past, attacking Confederate monuments and energetically courting African American voters” wants us to believe his betrayal is anything but that.
Northam, who was elected in large because of record African-American turnout, had offered himself as the antithesis to Confederate monument-lover and longtime D.C. bagman Ed Gillespie, whose racist and xenophobic 2017 campaign rhetoric was reminiscent of those campaigns run by Lee Atwater.
Remarkably, Gillespie was among the first Friday to decry Northam as unfit to serve. This despite the former RNC chair’s own proclivity for dog whistle politics and demonization of undocumented immigrants. In the wake of Charlottesville, where a young progressive activist was murdered by a white supremacist thug, Gillespie said nothing as his party and president lurched into the dustbin of intolerance.
The walking bastion of courage known as Sen. Ted Cruz issued a sharp, if not well-timed, rebuke: “…anybody who voluntarily chooses to celebrate the evil [and] bigoted KKK is unfit for public office.”
Damn right, Ted. Now when will you be demanding Steve King’s censure or that Donald Trump hand over the keys to the White House van?
Not that Northam does not deserve every bit of criticism coming his way. I chuckled aloud as the governor explained the difficulty of scrubbing shoe polish off one’s face and half-hoped he would demonstrate his allegedly award-winning moonwalk. But the fact is there is nothing amusing about a blackface or any other manifestation of racial bias when lives are on the line. Northam, like his classmates, was a physician-in-training. After graduating Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, he was an officer in the U.S. Medical Army Corps. Racial minorities account for four out of 10 Army servicemen and women.
And, while Virginia has only the 37th largest rate of incarceration in the country, African-American inmates outnumber their white counterparts by a five-to-one margin. Black Virginians are disproportionately more likely not to have access to meaningful healthcare or quality public schools and report higher instances of homelessness, unemployment and food instability by double. Northam, it should be said, is a pediatric neurologist, and was on staff at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk where he, no doubt, attended to the medical needs of African-American children.
Those people believed in Northam. They cast their ballots for a man who they thought believed in them.
For their part, several of his black medical school classmates were stunned, according to a Washington Post report. They called him “amiable” and the campus “tolerant.” Then again, I suppose they weren’t invited to this party. That would have been akin to a man gathering his neighbors so they could witness him assaulting his wife. That yearbook must have been the best kept secret on campus.
Northam said he had been “under-informed” earlier in his career as he batted back criticism about his late conversion to more liberal views in 2017, His win in Virginia that year was supposedly a blueprint for the kind of coalition-building some say the Democrats sorely need.
“Northam couldn’t lie when a New York Times reporter asked him if he had supported Bush. ‘My honor is very important to me,’” he replied, according to Politico.
Just below the nickname “Coonman” is that yearbook is a quote from Longfellow:
Not in the clamor of the crowded street,
Not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng,
But in ourselves, are triumph and defeat.
Why lie now? Why not be honest about his appearance in that yearbook photograph? Certainly, it was a lot of years ago and none of us is getting any younger. But if that photo had been on my yearbook page, I would not have been silent.
If I had ever once painted my face black (or white for that matter) or slipped on a Klan hood for a party, I’d remember. Something tells me the governor does remember that night and he knows exactly which get-up he was wearing.
And he knows it’s indefensible.