Ralph Northam’s Mistake

The Virginia governor’s main problem is not the particulars of his dalliances with racism, but the fact that they exist—and that they caught black voters unawares.

Steve Helber / AP

On Friday, faced with a photo on his medical-school yearbook page featuring one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam apologized. By Saturday, he said he’d never taken the photo, never seen the yearbook, and didn’t even go to the party where it was taken, adding that a mix-up in the yearbook’s production must have created an error.

Over the span of a truly bizarre 24 hours, Virginian voters saw the photos first disseminated by right-wing blogs, then confirmed by the mainstream press; discovered that one of Northam’s college nicknames was “Coonman”; saw him admit to and then deny wearing blackface or a Klan robe; and then saw him admit to once blackening his face with shoe polish to imitate Michael Jackson. During Saturday’s press conference, after a reporter asked whether Northam could do the moonwalk, he appeared to contemplate doing it at the podium.

But there will be no easy moonwalking out of this drama. Northam was a willing and gleeful participant in the cultural structure that his voters elected him to overturn. That fact came to them all as a surprise; they are unlikely to forgive him for it.

Over the weekend, the pressure against the governor only intensified. Shortly after Northam dug in his heels, the Virginia House Democratic Caucus renewed its calls for his resignation, and the chorus of national Democrats wanting him to leave office swelled. Northam’s immediate predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, called for his resignation. Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, who would succeed Northam should he resign, issued a strong statement, saying Virginians “cannot condone the actions from his past, that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping, and intimidation.” Northam’s days as governor could be numbered.

His denials and admissions on Saturday came as he insisted he would stay in office. The main effect of Northam’s statements over the weekend has not been to clarify anything but to obfuscate, to create an epistemological thicket of uncertainty around a yearbook photo whose meaning seems otherwise obvious. Yet in Virginia, a state that’s currently the center of gravity of the struggle over the future of white supremacy in America, it was never the particulars that mattered.

Virginia maintains a special place in the national mythology, in the history of white supremacy, and thus, in the ongoing debate about white supremacy’s place in the nation’s present. Over the past few years, black activism, the whispers of anti-racist policy making, and the rising political power of people of color prompted a backlash, the ascendance of the alt-right, and a brand of open bigotry embodied by Trumpism. Those tensions amplified a running debate in the South over the meaning of Confederate monuments erected to sustain white supremacy—nowhere more so than in Virginia, where Robert E. Lee’s bones are interred and where Jefferson Davis still finds his name on highways.

In the summer of 2017, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville put a spark to kindling. Klansmen and neo-Nazis descended upon the college town and marched, armed, through the streets. The conflagration ended with James Alex Fields driving his car through a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer.

Northam was on the campaign trail at the time. In fact, the political backdrop of the rallies in Charlottesville wasn’t just President Donald Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy or a national dialogue over the fate of Confederate statues, but the looming Virginia election in the fall of 2017, in which two dramatically different visions of the future of the state were in play.

On the one hand, Corey Stewart launched a deadly serious campaign for the GOP’s nomination steeped in neo-Confederate nostalgia. Stewart succeeded in making the eventual Republican nominee Ed Gillespie—who ran fearmongering ads about black people convicted of felonies voting and the threat posed by the MS-13 gang—look racially moderate by comparison. Both Gillespie and Stewart opposed the removal of Confederate statues and iconography. Northam himself originally demurred on the issue during the campaign, saying each removal should be a local issue. But after Heyer’s death and after then-Governor McAuliffe came out in favor of removing the statues, Northam pledged to be “a vocal advocate” for their removal.

That vocal support only increased the tensions. The Virginia GOP said in a tweet that Northam had “turned his back on his own family’s heritage in demanding monument removal.” But it was possible to see a sort of cold calculus in Northam’s decision. Given the injection of liberals into Northern Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., and the changing shape of the electorate, Democrats knew they could win by boosting black turnout even if it meant losing some white suburban and rural votes.

The rise of the Trumpist brand of white supremacy, punctuated by Charlottesville, gave the Democrats an opportunity. The rallies and the increasingly militant defenses of the Lost Cause not only represent ed a real threat of violence to the black community in Charlottesville; they sent a clear signal to black Virginians and to black voters across the country. In one of the more underrated major political shifts of the past decade, the Charlottesville terror coincided with the thinning of a small but real contingent of black political support for conservative politicians, and with a sharp increase in anxiety in polls of black people around the threats of racism. Those phenomena then sparked the rise of a renewed grassroots progressive energy designed to do one thing: turn out black voters.

And those black voters turned out for Ralph Northam. They turned out for Democrats. Black voters outperformed their demographic share and made up 20 percent of the Virginia electorate in 2017. In majority-minority districts, Northam’s support soared relative to McAuliffe’s own success in 2013. Democrats also made major gains in the House of Delegates, and Fairfax won his race for lieutenant governor, becoming the second black person to hold statewide office in Virginia.

This was all a special moment in Virginia’s history. Black communities rallied against the threat of a very specific kind of overt racism that lives in Virginia’s bones, giving Democrats and Northam a clear mandate. That they also elected Fairfax—the descendant of an enslaved man manumitted by the scion of one of Virginia’s founding families—seemed particularly symbolic.

This week, Northam has been revealed to be in violation of that mandate. He was never a particularly quick or vocal advocate of racial justice, or of reassessing Virginia’s peculiar legacy, but black voters are nothing if not pragmatic. Northam’s denunciations of Stewart, Gillespie, and the white men rallying in Charlottesville as relics of a calamitous era were enough. He didn’t need to be a crusader in order to make good on that trust. He just needed to begin the process of closing a door to the horror of the past.

Yet, through some strange error with yearbook printing that landed a particularly racist photo on his page; through a combination of rather convenient forgetfulness, oversight, and carelessness, or worse; and through an ill-advised decision to apply shoe polish to his face to impersonate Michael Jackson, the door has now been opened even further. The revelation of racist themes across his entire medical-school yearbook throws into question not only Northam’s political career, but the medical careers of his peers, as they cared for minority patients. The revelations of the weekend, of a politician once nicknamed “Coonman,” destroy his moral and rhetorical credibility in undertaking the necessary project of standing against surging racism from the right. And the revelations come at a crucial time, as hate crimes in the country have soared, and as anti-immigrant rhetoric from Trump has further polarized racial dynamics.

The worst-case and best-case scenarios for Northam are not all that far apart. At worst, should his current defenses not hold up to scrutiny, Northam might be revealed as an open bigot at one point, a grown man who chose to wear a Klan robe or blackface for laughs. At best, even by his own admission, he still chose to don blackface. Both of those scenarios allow time for growth in the years since 1984, for the potential rejection of racism and for his possible evolution as the standard-bearer of a diverse coalition. But they also reveal him to be cut from the same cloth as the other elites of the Old Dominion, where the Lost Cause doesn’t appear to be all that lost, and where reinforcing the old hegemony has often been a bipartisan project.

It’s possible that Northam hangs on, that somehow this all blows over, and that his planned racial-reconciliation tour somehow works. His detractors could choose to quietly let the issue go, to focus on bigger national issues and the looming Democratic presidential primary.

But whether he resigns or not, his ability to take on the project of combatting white supremacy has been hobbled. That, he cannot explain away.