Why Ralph Northam’s Racist Fiasco Is a Golden Opportunity for Black Voters

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Photo: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

So, here we are: Instead of resigning as governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam is forcing the state to endure his journey of racial awakening alongside him. His staff has assigned him a Racism 101 “reading list” that includes Alex Haley’s Roots and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “The Case for Reparations.” On Monday, he and his advisers announced plans for a “listening tour” to “engage different communities in conversations about race” — which is ironic, considering that Northam has already refused to listen to anybody demanding he step down.

The latter is notable because it complicates what might otherwise be an opportunity. Last month, Northam admitted to — and then denied — appearing in a photo on his 1984 medical-school yearbook page of someone in blackface next to someone in Ku Klux Klan garb. It is unclear which of the two the governor thought might be him, but his confusion, he said, stemmed from a separate blackface incident in which he’d participated that same year — a dance contest, during which he darkened his face with shoe polish to impersonate Michael Jackson.

The next best outcome, assuming he does complete his term, is that Northam becomes a racial-justice governor — an unexpected climax for a blackface scandal, to be sure. But he has hinted at the possibility: BuzzFeed’s Darren Sands reports that the administration is exploring “how it might recalibrate Northam’s legislative agenda to focus closely on race and equality.” The plan currently on the table focuses on “increasing resources for affordable housing” and “pumping money into public services like education and transportation,” among other items. Northam has also privately expressed fear at leaving office branded as a “racist for life,” suggesting that he is worried about how the incident will tarnish his legacy. All of this, one would imagine, constitutes leverage for advocates, who could theoretically use the governor’s newfound sympathies to push him to adopt one of America’s more progressive racial-justice agendas.

But while the stars may seem aligned for such an about-face, there’s a problem: Northam has not actually demonstrated a strong capacity for listening. He has ignored the overwhelming calls to resign coming from within his own party, and begun his image rehabilitation by making it a public spectacle where black people are doing a lot of the literal and symbolic work for him — replete with impromptu meetings with Virginia’s black political leaders, an “I have black friends” anecdote where he name-dropped an actual black staffer, and an interview with Gayle King during which he described Virginia’s first black residents as “indentured servants” (they were, in fact, slaves — although, as Jelani Cobb explained on Twitter, there were black indentured servants in the Virginia colonies as well).

So, at a time when Northam has the potential to become one of the few U.S. governors who is truly accountable to black constituents, who’s to say that he will spend his “listening tour” actually listening to them? The answer, it seems, lies in the extent to which black Virginians can hold him to his promise. And their power to do so is limited.

Leverage was lost, for instance, when demands for Northam’s resignation were not paired with an “or” — as in, resign or pursue a New Deal–esque set of investments in black housing, jobs, and education. When news broke about the yearbook photo, activists and fellow Democrats presented leaving as his only option. When he refused to resign, nothing bound his commitment to any kind of racial-justice platform besides his own conscience and concerns about his self-image. Needless to say, these are unreliable motivators. This assessment, though, may be overstating the extent to which black Virginians required such a commitment in order to move forward to begin with. Black people are the population upon whom the costs of racism have fallen the heaviest, yet they are also among those least interested in Northam resigning, according to a Washington Post poll. Nearly 60 percent of black respondents said he should not step down, compared to 46 percent of white respondents (these results are skewed, of course, by the poll’s failure to distinguish between white Democrats and white Republicans). “I’m not gonna really grade the picture that much because I know … white people,” David Wright, a black Army veteran, told CNN last week. “It’s not a new thing. It’s just everybody is coming out in the open.”

The poll does not detail why the majority of black respondents felt this way, but several factors suggest that the fallout from Northam’s resignation bodes worse for their well-being than him staying, at least for now. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, both Democrats and potential Northam successors, are facing their own scandals: two allegations of sexual assault and another blackface photo, respectively. Should all three resign, it would eliminate the top three positions in the state’s gubernatorial line of succession — leaving black Virginians to the devices of a Republican Party, led by Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox, known for its racism. Black Virginians have also expressed willingness to let Northam earn their trust. “We are a forgiving people,” 82-year-old James Lunsford, who is black, told CNN. “I think we should forgive him.”

But the rhetorical power to forgive is different from the material power to hold Northam to a legislative agenda. Redemption narratives are appealing, but can also be bought with the right symbolic gestures — reading the right books, for example, or securing the right photo op. It is a sign of the fundamental inequality at play here that black people can neither expect Northam to pursue their best interests or risk his resignation and the possibility of Republican rule. All we have is Northam’s word to go by. Its worth is yet to be determined.

Ralph Northam’s Racist Fiasco Is a Golden Opportunity