Why Ralph Northam Should Resign

The best public service he can now render is conserving the strong social stigma against white supremacists.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

On Friday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam apologized for appearing in a photograph that featured one person in blackface and another wearing the robe and hood of a terrorist organization that murdered thousands of African Americans, burned crosses on the lawns of petrified families, whipped up bigotry against Catholics and Jews, and systematically suppressed the civil rights of black voters for decades. The Democrat “did not say whether he was the man dressed in blackface or the one in a Klan robe and hood,” The Washington Post noted.

The photo dates back to 1984, when Northam graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School. It was published on his yearbook page.

Calls for his resignation are widespread.

Every day for years, Americans have been bombarded with calls to be outraged about matters large, small, and absurd. Given our culture’s inability to reserve stigma for when it is most appropriate, fatigue is inevitable. But every so often, something actually warrants public opprobrium.

This is one of those matters.

The affair may stoke the pernicious impulse to dig into people’s distant past. Often, these public airings of old offenses harm innocent people and don’t help anyone at all.

But one can oppose the general trend without having to ignore the uncovered misdeeds of the most powerful public officials.

The image in question is inexcusable. Nothing in American history is more odious than the KKK. The strong social stigma against white supremacists, anti-black terrorism, and the dehumanization of African Americans is among the triumphs of the past decades of the 20th century. Our charge is to conserve it, for the sake of justice and the viability of a diverse nation.

The newness of what we’re conserving is underscored by the fact that it wasn’t 1864, 1924, or 1954 when the photograph in question appeared in a yearbook.

It was 1984.

Not only did the young men think dressing up as they did was acceptable; they lived in a milieu where, apparently, no shame was associated with their actions. Northam didn’t think, I’d better make sure no one ever sees this. He thought, I’ll pose for a picture and make this the image I share with the faculty, staff, and students of my professional school—the one that they’ll remember me by.

His subsequent career seems to reflect better decision making. His apology may be sincere.

“The racist and offensive attitudes it represents does not reflect the person I am today, or the way that I have conducted myself as a soldier, a doctor, and a public servant,” he said. “I am deeply sorry. I cannot change the decisions I made, nor can I undo the harm that my behavior caused then and today, but I accept responsibility for my past actions and I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust.”

While I do not consider anyone irredeemable, especially when the transgression happened decades ago and seems to have been anomalous, it is not fair for Northam to tell Virginians––especially black Virginians––that he’ll stay on in the state’s most powerful job when he acknowledges that he has lost their trust.

A more decent course is available to him: Resign the governorship in a way that powerfully reaffirms the stigma against white supremacy. That’s the best way that he can serve the commonwealth right now. Later, if he regains the trust of Virginians, of course including African American Virginians, he can run again. If never reelected, he wasn’t indispensable.