Ralph Northam was at a crossroads on Friday. He had recently admitted to appearing in a photo on his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page that depicted a person in blackface standing next to a person dressed as a Ku Klux Klansman. He did not specify which of the two people was him, nor did he need to — his tenure as governor of Virginia seemed finished either way. It appeared that the only thing left to do was heed the call of his fellow Democrats and pack up his bags and resign.
Instead, Northam called a press conference the next day and reversed course. He told reporters that he now believed he was not actually in the photo, and had only said otherwise because he had confused it with another time he “darkened [his] face.” The other occasion was a dance contest in San Antonio, also in 1984, where he had impersonated Michael Jackson and done the “moonwalk.” For those keeping count, that is possibly two times the white governor of Virginia has donned blackface as an adult — in the same year.
But almost as striking was Northam’s justification for not stepping down. “If I were to listen to the voices calling on me to resign my office today, I could spare myself from the difficult path that lies ahead,” he said on Saturday. “I could avoid an honest conversation about harmful actions from my past. I cannot in good conscience choose the path that would be easier for me in an effort to duck my responsibility to reconcile. I took an oath to uphold this office and serve the people of this commonwealth to the best of my ability. As long as I believe I can effectively fulfill that task, I intend to continue doing the business of Virginia.”
Northam’s explanation may be nominally about Virginia, but it is not actually about Virginia. It is about Ralph Northam and whether he can transcend the missteps of his youth in order to redeem himself in the eyes of the electorate and “grow as a man and a leader.” The stakes are his personal reputation and political career. Virginia will not implode if he leaves. Even partisans who see him resigning as bad news for Democratic control in the state can rest assured that matters would likely be no worse-off under Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax or Attorney General Mark Herring, both of whom follow Northam in the line of succession, and both of whom are also Democrats.
To be sure, Northam is entitled to seek redemption and meditate on the harm he may have caused. But contrary to his claim, he does not need to do so on the Virginia taxpayers’ dime. He can pursue “an honest conversation about harmful actions from [his] past” and embrace his “responsibility to reconcile” to his heart’s content. Neither requires him to occupy the governor’s mansion any longer than he already has.
Nor does his personal growth require the kind of public black labor he will inevitably summon to his defense. Rehabilitating a politician’s image is, by nature, a public-relations campaign. National newspapers have already deployed reporters to ask black Virginians if they believe Northam is a racist. Northam has gathered black officials in his administration for impromptu discussions about the issue, and at Saturday’s news conference invoked a black “friend” and campaign assistant, Seth Opoku-Yeboah, to show that he has had meaningful discussions about racism in the past, including about blackface specifically. It seems safe to say this was not a job any of them signed up for. Northam’s redemption is not the lens through which any of them hoped racism would be discussed under their leadership.
So instead of moving forward and having an honest discussion about racism — as Northam claims he wants to do — Virginians, and especially black Virginians, are left discussing whether Northam is fit to lead that discussion. Needless to say, this is a barrier to actually having the discussion. None of which contradicts the fact that a personal reckoning is in order for the governor, or necessarily advocates for him stepping down. It is an acknowledgment that conversations about racism in the United States routinely get consumed by debate about white people’s feelings, and that having conversations on these terms reduces them to stepping stones in the pursuit of white redemption rather than reckonings with how racism impacts nonwhite people.
This is despite the fact that white people are the population least affected by racism, and for whom lived experiences with racism are “the most abstract,” to quote NPR’s Gene Demby. The personal concerns that mark the debate around Northam’s yearbook photo — like whether having done something racist in the past marks him as irredeemably racist in the present — have taken, and will continue to take, precedent over efforts to address racism as a broad-based phenomenon with higher stakes than just white people’s self-discovery. It individualizes the systemic and whitewashes that over which black blood is regularly shed. The irony of Virginians debating whether Northam should stay in office following a racism scandal, less than 18 months after white supremacists beat DeAndre Harris to a pulp in Charlottesville and murdered Heather Heyer, seems lost on the governor.
For black Virginians, racism is a daily presence with vivid and often violent manifestations, as with the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. It is written in history. Virginia was the first state to import black slaves from Africa to the United States 400 years ago. It is where Thomas Jefferson raped Sally Hemings and fathered six children whom he kept in bondage. It is the state that fought Richard and Mildred Loving’s marriage and took them to the Supreme Court in 1967. Shepherding Northam on his journey may be a worthwhile pursuit for some black people. More likely, doing so means less attention paid to wrestling with how racism functions in Virginia for them. It is not too late to change course. Northam could opt to better himself without subjecting Virginia to the details or parading his black acquaintances in service of his exoneration. He could encourage a reckoning that does not focus on him. Or he could do what America usually does.