WASHINGTON — Ralph Northam, come on down, you're the Next White Devil in America's Midst. Don't be bashful, Governor. Hell, the way you've been outed and portrayed the past 72 hours, you fit right in with some of Richmond's finest in the 154 years... since the Civil War ended.
When you dig deep and think hard, you can't come to anything other than one, hard truth: From Monument Avenue in Richmond to a re-purposed, med-school yearbook from 1984: Virginia is still very much home to the Confederacy.
Remember segregation loyalist/former governor Harry Byrd in 1954? After Brown vs. Board of Education, he hid behind the ole' "state's rights" shield, proclaiming Virginia's laws full-proof in preventing "even a single Negro child from attending public schools," Byrd said then.
Or former governor George Allen, Jr. who, after referring to an East Indian man at a failed Senatorial campaign stop in 2006 as "Macaca," (meaning monkey), added, "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."
The real world of Virginia, where Allen once kept a noose hanging on a ficus tree in his law office, delighted in his Confederate flag memorabilia and, most disturbingly, while governor, proposed Virginia educational guidelines that would have referred to slaves as "settlers."
Allen is a Republican. Northam, like Byrd before him, is a Democrat. But when it comes to being racially digressive, political affiliation doesn't always matter in the Commonwealth.
After the Charleston, S.C., church massacre in 2015, even Alabama's Republican governor ordered all Confederate flags removed from the state's buildings. Not former Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb, the same man George Allen Jr. gifted his Senate seat by detonating his political career with a racial slur. Nope.
To Webb, the Confederate flag wasn't a reminder of our racist past, flown proudly by the white supremacist who murdered nine black parishioners at bible study. It was merely part of our complicated Civil War history, a time for us to "recognize once more that our complex multicultural society is founded on the principle of mutual respect.”
Webb ceased to understand the same thing Northam is now finding out: That when you try to penetrate the thick heads of many Stars & Bars-till-they-die Virginians -- try to make them see that just because something is personally nostalgic to them it doesn't mean it can't hurt and oppress somebody else -- there is no mutual respect; there is only unilateral racism. And until it's more forcefully addressed by the next governor of Virginia, many more disturbing yearbook pictures are going to be taken, published and uncovered.
Now, I understand, implying one of the original 13 colonies remains racist is a little much. So let me say this: I have good friends and family who are Virginians.
I also understand that to sever connection with someone whose values, politics and worldview are radically different than yours, you can now just label them a racist or misogynist based on where they live, work, went to school or their ancestral lineage. Once one or two boxes are checked, it takes a blink to arrive at the conclusion they are who we imagined they are.
It's also unfair, knee-jerk and it kills any opportunity to have meaningful discussion with everybody who might not necessarily believe any of the things their parents, school or community believes.
But Ralph Northam is not everybody. He is Virginia's governor. He doesn't live or work just anywhere. Richmond is home to the Executive Mansion and the former capital of the Confederacy. He didn't go to just any school. As an undergrad, he went to Virginia Military Institute, where at least a couple of classmates' nickname for him was the vile slur, "Coonsman," where, heck, women couldn't even enroll until 1997; VMI, whose cadets have sent online racist and sexist posts in the past decade.
Northam became a physician at Eastern Virginia Medical School, whose yearbook editors and adviser look as wrong and guilty as the man that as of Sunday afternoon still holds the highest office in the Commonwealth.
To recount the past three to five days of his governorship is to watch a once-stainless politician fall into the abyss of no return to political life. Bizarre and tin-eared are the only two adjectives that come to mind.
First, Northam became pile-on in America's new We-Found-You-Out piñata when a 1984 med-school yearbook page went viral late Friday. It featured a pair of racist men, probably in their mid-20s -- one wearing a Ku Klax Klan hood and robe, and the other in blackface under a page bearing Northam's full name.
Now, seeing that photo on a person's page, well, you'd assume it doesn't take a cryptographer to realize one of those warped college kids in the photo is him. He even admitted it after the photo was published, apologizing several hours later in a prepared statement.
"Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive. I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo, and for the hurt that decision caused then and now."
A Twitter video followed, Northam sitting behind his desk where he essentially said that's not the person he is now and he was ready to take the hard steps to make amends. With Democrats and Republicans calling for him step down, he forged on.
Then came Saturday, when Northam held a surreal news conference to say A.) he wasn't one of the two men in the racist photo [Yay!] B.) okay, he did blackface when he won a Michael Jackson dance contest the same year doing the moonwalk [Boo!] and C.) he's retracting his apology for the photo, claiming absolute innocence, saying he never saw it before the other night. He even said he would consider employing facial-recognition software to prove it. [Huh?]
He didn’t publicly cry on the picture and ask for forgiveness for possibly being racist in med school. He didn’t go into a deep-seeded explanation of why the environment at the school or his own background and upbringing contributed to his warped thinking in the moment, why someone might refer to him as a racial slur as an undergrad, why black shoe polish was a good idea for an MJ dance contest. And he really didn’t have to.
Because this isn't about Ralph Northam. He’s just the latest signpost in Virginia to say ominously, out loud, "This will always be Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee's state. Always."
The most hollow statement of all Friday night belonged to Republican Party of Virginia chairman Jack Wilson, who, in calling for Northam's resignation, said, "Racism has no place in Virginia."
Really, Jack? Then how come racism is everywhere in Virginia? How come one of the most visible landmarks on the state's largest, contiguous freeway -- hard off Interstate 95 by Stafford -- is a monstrous Stars & Bars flag, waving as freely and proudly as it did in the early 1860s, when the ultimate cause for businessmen in the South was ensuring slavery continued?
How come the Virginia Flaggers, the roughly 40 or so loyalists who helped fund and raise that flag in 2011, have grown their organization into the hundreds, perhaps even thousands?
How come the most violent confrontation between white nationalists and people of color and their allies in the past five decades happened less than two summers ago in Charlottesville, where hate groups converged under the guise of not wanting a statue of a Confederate general removed?
If you would have told me even 10 years ago that adult white men would march in hoods carrying torches and waving Nazi flags one night, and the next day take those hoods off to show how proud they were of hating people who don't look like them -- as if they couldn't wait to come out of the closet as racists to finally make their employers and family and friends understand -- I'd say you were a few fries short of a Happy Meal. But it happened. In a progressive college town, no less.
Corey Stewart, whom Jack Wilson helped ensure was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2018, made his political bones by wrapping himself around the Confederate flag and other emblems of the Old South. The man wasn't blowing a race-baiting dog whistle; he had a bullhorn and a lot of white Virginians loved the sound of it.
In a 2017 article for Time magazine, Doug Stafford, the chief strategist to Senator Rand Paul and a 25-year Virginia resident, painstakingly laid out the state’s unseemly racial history. It goes into the Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court case, when a white man and a black woman couldn't be legally married until 1967, meaning there are people alive in the state today who still remember when interracial marriage was against the law. It includes a court-mandated desegregation of nine, still white-only schools around Virginia in 1958. To avoid compliance and admit black students, the public schools in Charlottesville and surrounding areas actually closed.
"Some of these public schools in Virginia remained closed for five years, and when they reopened, they were nearly all black students," writes Stafford. “The white students had relocated to private schools with 'segregation grants' to pay tuition."
Think on that for a moment. Parents and educators were so adamant that they did not want black children in their school hallways and classrooms that private schools essentially gave families scholarships so their kids could just go to school with other Caucasian children.
"Why is this all important?" Stafford concludes in the aftermath of Charlottesville: "Because racism is part of our history, whether we like it or not. Pretending it did not happen, does not happen and can be ignored leads to things like pretending a group of neo-Nazis and a group of counter-protesters are morally equivalent. They are not."
Heck, less than two summers ago in Jack Wilson's own beloved Chesterfield County, a 27-year-old white man was arrested for approaching a car, grabbing the black woman driver, pulling her out of her vehicle and beating her because of her race.
More swastikas have been painted on buildings and schools in Jack Wilson's state the past few years than all of Wurzburg, circa 1942. Just this past October, 19 swastikas were painted on Fairfax's Jewish Community Center -- 19! Correct me if I'm wrong, but Fairfax is supposed to be part of Northern Virginia's new-and-improved, we-like-diversity commonwealth, isn't it?
Five years ago, with the ChangeTheName.org controversy reached a fevered pitch nationally, former Loudoun County House Delegate David I. Ramadan (R-Loudoun and Prince William counties) summed up his fellow Virginia officeholders' passion for keeping Washington's NFL name, which, by the way, is a dictionary-defined racial slur.
"It’s no mistake that members of this newfound caucus come from around the commonwealth. For generations, [they] have been Virginia’s team, even the South’s team."
The South's team. That's the phrase George Preston Marshall, the team's original owner, used to market Sammy Baugh and the good ole' boys to every major city below the Mason-Dixon Line that didn't have a pro football team yet. It's why he kept the burgundy and gold's roster white until 1961, when the Kennedy administration told him he couldn't play in DC anymore unless he integrated his lost-in-time franchise.
Again, this isn't about Northam. He's just the most prominent, in-the-news symptom of a public-mental-health crisis dogging Virginians for centuries.
One-hundred-fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, after freed slaves reached out to touch President Lincoln's hand in the streets of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy still resides in the commonwealth. In point of fact, Jefferson Davis, the next generation, might be sitting in the governor's mansion right now figuring out how to further conceal the truth about him and his state.
I’m not clear on a couple of things. I don’t believe that Gov. Northam never knew that photo was on his med-school yearbook page. He didn’t have to see it; any one he knew who had one and saw that photo would call him up and inquire about it. You’re going to tell me that a photo like that just accidentally ends up under your name? And if it did, wouldn’t the person who made the mistake try and rectify it in some way? Or, if they indeed are a virulent racist, brag about it.
Governor, it’s not important that neither of those photos are you at this point. You’ve given us enough facts to conclude that even if you weren't, we can sure as hell understand why that might be on your yearbook page under your name. And because we can, you look desperate now, more interested in staying in power than truly making amends.
Pro bono, I’ll write your final statement for you:
“It’s come to my attention that most people in the Commonwealth do not see me as someone they want to be your governor right now. Just as when I took office less than a year ago, I have to abide by the will of the people. Today, I will resign my governorship. If I could do it over, I would have stuck with my apology in the beginning and kept making amends in the hours and days afterward. Because whether or not I was in that yearbook photo or not 35 years ago it doesn’t change the fact that it appeared under my name and it hurt a lot of people. I did not know at that age how racially hurtful and offensive putting blackface on was, or I would have never done it at a dance contest the same year. I’m sorry you had to read of a racial slur of a nickname I was called as an undergraduate at VMI, too.
The truth is, this state is still healing and trying to reconcile its Confederate past with the inclusive, diverse and hopeful present that much of Virginia is today. This moment brings an end to my political career right now, and it’s as heartbreaking for me and my family as you might imagine. But what’s more heartbreaking is the people who thought they knew me realizing that I have Confederate skeletons in my closet, too.
I’m sorry to those of you who were genuinely wounded by my actions, especially the African American community and people of color in this state who still continue to deal daily with things that people who look like me never will. I’m truly remorseful and I plan to do the work it takes to become the person I want to be going forward for me and my family.
Thank you for letting me serve you in the short time I did. It was a privilege and a honor."
Whether or not he resigns doesn't matter. It won't matter until somebody has the courage to step up and call the Commonwealth for what is still is: A state that will never truly deal with its past until it lets go of all the ugly parts.