This Black History month marks 400 years since Blacks were forcibly brought to America. It started with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam defending a 1984 racist black face photo standing next to a KKK member in his medical school yearbook page. As an African American, this photo makes my blood boil.
Virginia Governor Northam is the latest white person to be caught in a racist compromising position. When Northam first spoke about his predicament, he manned up. He stated that the photo was “clearly racist and offensive.” But then he flip- flopped to his current position—denying that he is in the photo. That position evolved apparently as many politicians called for his resignation.
To those many persons who are clueless about whites in black face, I suggest that you use the month of February to read up on it. White actors and musicians during the time of slavery and up to an including into the 1900’s would cover their faces in black dye and create stereotypical and racist portrayals of slaves and African Americans. The representations would show blacks as being inferior to whites, being sub- intelligent with a low IQ and being less than human and childlike. The Black face actors and musicians played parts and sang in ways to dehumanize and ridicule African Americans, making them the butt of jokes for white audiences. These portrayals were funny to whites but degrading to African Americans.
In Northam’s case, the 1984 yearbook photo was the same portrayal as earlier Black face actors. It was likely humorous to his white friends but appalling and disgusting to African Americans. Northam’s depiction goes even farther. It shows a white man in Black face standing next to a KKK member. How did he ever think that was humorous and not racist? Even if Northam was not well versed on Black history, the photo speaks volumes of what he really thought about African Americans over 30 years ago. The only thing possibly worse would have been if the KKK person was holding a noose.
Many people have something in their past that they regret doing. The problem with Northam is he failed to acknowledge the photo much earlier in his career, apologize for it and ask for forgiveness—like before he ran for Governor. It makes me think what else is Northam hiding. Northam has alluded to the fact that other photos may come up.
As for those persons who believe that 30 years ago is time enough for folks to change. I agree. However, I do not agree with persons who get caught holding the racist cookie 30 years later and only then saying—that was back then.
Ralph Northam should not get a pass on this one. And yes, he along with many others like him in both political parties should resign. Northam is the latest white politician caught in a racist web. Nearly every state and national political ally and the University of Virginia President James Ryan have asked for Northam’s resignation. The one politician supporting Northam is former Virginia congressman Jim Moran.
If Northam’s photo involved something of a serious nature involving sexual assault, I doubt if there would be much debate about his resignation. And he may have already resigned. Former Senator Al Franken resigned over a photo implying that he forcibly kissed a woman on an airplane while she was asleep. The photo in Franken’s case was nowhere nearly as offensive as the Northam black face and KKK photo. While I don’t believe the photo warranted Franke’s resignation, he became a casualty of the MeToo movement.
The nature of Northam’s photo is racism. The offensive nature and outcomes of the two—race and sex, should be equal. Anything involving racism always carries a higher burden in America—even 400 years after the first Africans arrived.
Being an effective leader means being able to lead. It will be difficult if not impossible for Northam to lead the Commonwealth of Virginia after this debacle. The clock ticks. It’s only a matter of time before Northam resigns.
Washington, D.C. based Debbie Hines is an attorney and former prosecutor.