ralph northam

Virginia First Lady Aggravates Northam’s Problems With Clumsy Handling of Slavery History

Pam Northam kept her husband from moonwalking at a press conference. But she’s not helping him now. Photo: Steve Helber/Getty Images

Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia is hanging onto his job by a fragile thread. And there’s no question that the thread would be severed by any indication that he hasn’t totally repudiated the racial insensitivity he showed by appearing in blackface as a college student. Indeed, that’s why Northam has simultaneously announced that instead of complying with widespread calls for his resignation, he’d conduct a sort of combined listening tour and flagellants’ parade to prove he understood his state’s racial wounds, and how he had contributed to them.

So Northam needs to play error-free baseball when it comes to anything involving race. And his wife Pam has inadvertently made that more difficult, as the Washington Post reports:

A Virginia state employee has complained that her eighth-grade daughter was upset during a tour of the historic governor’s residence when first lady Pam Northam handed a ball of cotton to her and another African American child and asked them to imagine being enslaved and having to pick the crop.

“The Governor and Mrs. Northam have asked the residents of the Commonwealth to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions,” Leah Dozier Walker, who oversees the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state Education Department, wrote Feb. 25 to lawmakers and the office of Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

“But the actions of Mrs. Northam, just last week, do not lead me to believe that this Governor’s office has taken seriously the harm and hurt they have caused African Americans in Virginia or that they are deserving of our forgiveness,” she wrote.

The odds are extremely low that Virginia’s First Lady was consciously being racially offensive; she likely thought she was emphasizing the horrors of slavery in a way that showed her awareness of the history of African-American slavery in her state. But again: It was no time for her to do anything that might be construed as insensitive. And it was:

Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News), a member of the Black Caucus, praised the student “for her courage in speaking out when a lot of times African Americans have not always had the opportunity to confront offenses in this way.”

She said Pam Northam used poor judgment in her presentation to the children.

“The cotton itself is a symbol of murder, rape, displacement and the radiating effects of the transatlantic slave trade that black Virginians are still experiencing today,” Price said. 

It’s a bit ironic that Pam Northam would be the instrument for further embarrassment of her husband during this saga. She did, after all, stop him from doing his own impression of Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk” dance at a press conference when he was claiming that this was the basis of the only blackface incident of his early years.

It’s unclear what happens next. Polls have shown Virginians opposing a Northam resignation. But the governor has totally run out of second chances to dispel suspicions that he’s clueless or worse on racial issues at a time when it matters most. He’s at the top of a group of Democratic state elected officials who are all in trouble: Attorney General Mark Herring for his own blackface incident, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax for two alleged sexual assaults. Virginia Democrats need to clean up their acts, definitively.

Virginia First Lady Worsens Northam’s Race Issue