I voted for the genial pediatric neurologist in the 2017 general election. The man I thought I voted for — despite objectionable policy positions on pipelines — was one of honor and principle, having served as an Army medical officer before returning to eastern Virginia to practice medicine.
I was wrong.
Not wrong for having voted for him — the alternative would have been much worse. However, I would be wrong for continuing to support Gov. Northam after photos from his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook show him posing in a photo with one person in blackface and the other in Ku Klux Klan robes. The governor did not disclose which of the two depictions he portrayed, but initially confirmed that he was in the photograph. Northam released an apology Friday evening for the “clearly racist and offensive” photo, but on Saturday denied being in the photo.
Endorsements from then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden helped him seal the election in 2017, while many black volunteers actively fought to secure the Northam-Fairfax-Herring ticket that year. The Virginia Senate District 6, where Northam was first elected to public office, has a black population higher than the statewide average. The district includes the Eastern Shore and Mathews County along with parts of Norfolk City. Northam is from the Eastern Shore, where he graduated from Onancock High School, which was predominantly black.
Personally, I am not concerned that the governor harbors racial animus toward black people. However, impersonations of a white terrorist organization — that is today larger than ever before — are far from harmless. The Klan was responsible for the 1964 Freedom Summer killings and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, where four young black girls were murdered and 22 parishioners were injured. They were responsible for the murder of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo and, as recently as 1981, the lynching of Michael Donald.
These moments are embedded within the cultural memory of racial minorities in this country. This cultural memory was reawakened with the 2015 mass shooting responsible for the deaths of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. However, for many older black people in the deep south, the memory never fades. We cannot forget the history of white, race-based terror in this country. Moreover, we cannot excuse behavior that makes light of terrorism with vivid depictions of symbols of hate being displayed by our governor, no matter how long ago the photograph was taken.
If the governor I elected is, in fact, a man of integrity, he would step down. Accountability needs to be taken and an apology will not suffice. While I believe him to be sincere in his apology, the cycle of forgetting the transgressions of white men on stolen land in a country built on the backs of the enslaved and oppressed cannot continue. The overwhelming narrative focuses on whether or not people are allowed to make mistakes and move on from them. However, white men like Ralph Northam (and dare I say Donald Trump without the intention of equating the two) are held to a much lower standard of accountability than women and people of color, and it is imperative that the governor publicly acknowledge this privilege if he wishes to move forward.
Take discipline in K-12 schooling, for example. Black students are overwhelmingly overrepresented in rates of students receiving out-of-school suspensions. Research shows that white students are rewarded economically in the long run for classroom misbehavior, while their black classmates are ultimately punished for the same behaviors. Nearly 90 percent of minors prosecuted as adults in New Jersey are black and Hispanic. In Florida, of the youth transferred into adult jails and prisons, two-thirds are black, even though fewer than 50 percent of Florida’s inmates are black. In politics, women are held to much higher standards than men, where research by Dr. Cecilia Hyunjung Mo shows that they must be more qualified than their male opponents to win election.
Both liberal and conservative politicians alike have called on the governor to resign. Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders, all potential players for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, have called for Northam’s resignation. Even Joe Biden, one of Northam’s most ardent supporters tweeted that Northam has “lost all moral authority and should resign immediately.”
If Northam resigns, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would assume the governorship. Fairfax would become the second black governor of Virginia after L. Douglas Wilder — the first black democratically elected governor of any state — who assumed office in 1990. Fairfax embraces his African-American heritage and stands firmly against Virginia’s racist history. When taking the Oath of Office to become the Commonwealth’s second black elected official, he carried the manumission papers dated from 1798 that freed one of his ancestors from slavery. He protested the honoring of the Robert E. Lee statue by the senate, instead opting to bring attention to the history of slavery in this country.
With pressure quickly mounted against Northam in a matter of hours, it is apparent that today’s political climate demands much more from our elected leaders than ever before. In his apology, Northam noted that it will “take serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused” but that he was “ready to do the important work.” The work that needs to be done to move the Commonwealth forward extends far beyond an apology. Northam’s sudden amnesia and lapse in credibility has made clear that Virginia needs unwavering leadership, and the healing will begin once he steps down.