There are 8.5 million Virginians. Surely the commonwealth can find someone to serve as governor whose yearbook page does not prominently feature a picture of a broadly grinning young white man in blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan robes.
Surely the commonwealth can find someone who, when confronted with said yearbook picture, does not say at a surreal news conference that “it’s taken time for me to be sure that it’s not me” in blackface. Someone who does not reach this conclusion because he so vividly remembers wearing blackface on another occasion, when he was moonwalking to victory in a Michael Jackson dance contest. Someone who, for heaven’s sake, does not appear ready to demonstrate the moonwalk right then and there, before his wife tells him these are “inappropriate circumstances.”
Let’s dispense with the question of whether Democrat Ralph Northam is being treated unfairly. His grievous political wounds — by Monday, virtually all Democratic Party luminaries in the state and most Democratic presidential hopefuls had called on him to resign — are self-inflicted.
When the photograph from Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook surfaced Friday, his first reaction was to issue a statement of abject apology. Tactically, in terms of crisis management, that was the right move — own the transgression and say unambiguously that you’re sorry.
By Saturday, though, he was “convinced that is not my picture” and had decided not to resign, at least not yet. But in his tragicomic session with reporters he could offer no explanation of how a shockingly racist picture of someone else might have ended up on a page headlined “Ralph Shearer Northam.” He also said that at the Michael Jackson dance contest, he applied just “a little bit of shoe polish” because he knew how hard it was to wash off — perhaps suggesting prior experience.
Northam may genuinely have convinced himself that it’s not him in the picture, but he hasn’t yet convinced me.
Even if it isn’t Northam, his attempts to explain himself Saturday made things worse and worse. He attempted to draw a “contrast” between the yearbook blackface, which he says was bad, and the dance contest blackface, which he says was also bad, but perhaps not as bad. It was cringeworthy to hear him talk about how “this has been a tremendous learning experience” and how “I have a lot of African-American friends” and how “I’ve had as much exposure to people of color as anybody.”
He kept digging himself deeper into the hole. Throughout his press conference, he seemed to imply that blackface was just something people did at the time. That would have perhaps been a contextual explanation, if not an excuse, if the time in question were, say, the Post-Reconstruction era. If it were 1884, when blackface was widely used by whites in Virginia and elsewhere to ridicule and denigrate African-Americans as inferior, I’d at least understand the “nobody knew better” defense. But the yearbook and the dance party were in 1984 — two full decades after passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act.
In 1984, anyone smart enough to graduate from medical school was smart enough to know that blackface was racist (to say nothing of wearing Klan regalia). And in 2019, anyone smart enough to be governor should know not to refer to blackface as “face painting,” as Northam did at one point on Saturday.
Northam’s immediate — and, I believe, insurmountable — problem is that he has lost the confidence of his party and many of his constituents. Northam was scheduled to go to Williamsburg on Friday for the inauguration of the College of William and Mary’s new president, but the school announced Monday that he will not attend because his presence “would fundamentally disrupt the sense of campus unity we aspire to and hope for.” More disinvitations surely will follow.
Another of his problems is intellectual laziness. For any public official, such ignorance of basic American history is unforgivable.
I said “American history” not “African-American history” because they are the same thing. You cannot have one without the other.
Four hundred years ago, in 1619 — a year before the Mayflower — the first African slaves in British North America landed at Hampton Roads. Without that arrival, there is no landed Virginia gentry: no Washington, Jefferson or Madison. There is no Confederacy to be memorialized in Richmond. There is no Jim Crow, no massive resistance to school desegregation, no Doug Wilder becoming the nation’s first black governor since Reconstruction.
Inevitably, Northam will learn that history is the cruelest judge of all.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.