Column: Northam talked reconciliation on race. His refusal to resign is contradictory to that.

Illustration by Steck Von

Fadel Allassan, News Editor

In the exact moment the public was made aware of a yearbook photo appearing to depict Gov. Ralph Northam in blackface standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood, his governorship and legacy became void.

The story has since led national news broadcasts and has even managed to muzzle a news cycle dominated by presidential hysteria.

The Eastern Shore native, who at first admitted he was in the photo, has since denied it. In a bizarre press conference Saturday, he said he initially believed he was in the photo, but after looking at it further, he determined it was not him because he distinctly remembered a different time he did blackface. In 1984, Northam darkened his face with shoe polish to compete as Michael Jackson in a dance contest. After a reporter asked Northam whether he could still moonwalk, the governor appeared to contemplate busting out into a dance, before his wife reigned him in, saying “inappropriate circumstances.”

Northam, despite striking a contrite tone, probably did more damage than good at the press conference, which could have doubled as a template for politicians on how not to handle scandal.

But one point during his press conference was particularly self-defeating for the governor entering his second year in office. Northam highlighted the chasm America faces on race, and said the state needs to begin the process of healing.

“I believe this moment can be the first small step to an open discussion about these difficult issues,” Northam said, “and how they contribute to the greater racism and discrimination that defines so much of our history.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with Northam’s statement that Virginia needs to have a conversation about race. If anything, it aligns with standard political platitudes on these issues. But his refusal to resign from office contradicts the entire notion.

If Virginia needs to work on reconciling its shameful history on race, then an elected leader who has lost credibility on the matter in the most spectacular and embarrassing way could not possibly direct this effort.

Before the photo’s surfacing, Northam seemed legitimately committed to racial equality. His election was viewed by many as a rejection of the politics of stoking racial fear, something Ed Gillespie, Northam’s opponent for the governorship in 2017, appeared to repeatedly do.

The former doctor was elected partly off the strength of black voters, who represent a fifth of the state. He secured almost 97 percent of the vote in districts that consist of at least 95 percent black voters. In black neighborhoods, volunteers worked tirelessly knocking on doors and making phone calls in support of someone they believed was in their corner.

Now, Northam’s tenure will be viewed as another chapter in Virginia’s amiable historical relationship with white supremacy. Every continuing moment of his governorship is a slap in the face to black Virginians who so vigorously supported him. Recognizing this, the black leaders of Virginia’s Democratic Party have almost unanimously left his corner.

“This is deeply disappointing and offensive,” said Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, one of Northam’s closest allies, before calling on the governor to step down.

Congressman Donald McEachin, D-Henrico County, drew connections to slavery and the Massive Resistance movement which fought to keep schools segregated, both of which found a home in Virginia.

“In light of that stain on our commonwealth and the work that still needs to be done, I ask the governor to step aside,” McEachin said in a statement. “Virginians have too much to overcome and too much healing yet in front of us.”

Northam faces two choices to define his place in history, and he’ll favor neither of them. He can answer the many calls asking him to resign in disgrace, or he could deprive Virginia of legitimate leadership as he sees out his term. Either way, he has lost all credibility.

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