After blackface scandal, Va. governor has hung on – and is making amends

Why We Wrote This

How does a politician atone for a racist mistake? In Virginia, many of Gov. Ralph Northam’s African American constituents say they believe his apologies are sincere and that he’s trying to make things better for them. 

Steve Helber/AP
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pauses during a news conference on Feb. 2, 2019, in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond. Governor Northam faced pressure to resign after a racist picture surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook in February.

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The discovery of a racist photo in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook last February caused a nationwide uproar. Two men were pictured – one in blackface, the other in Ku Klux Klan robes.

Yet Mr. Northam weathered the storm, and has spent the months since with his head down, focusing on his job. His political survival speaks in part to his willingness to learn and his constituents’ capacity to forgive. As politicians such as Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ask forgiveness for their own blackface scandals, some say Mr. Northam’s path offers a model to follow.

After promising to spend his two remaining years in office promoting racial equity, he has created advisory boards on racial issues and taken steps to remove Confederate monuments. He has also spent time meeting with black leaders on a statewide reconciliation tour. Skeptics questioned his motives, but many African Americans say they find his reforms authentic.

“That’s a part of our DNA,” says Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck. “We talk about forgiveness. We took it all in stride, because that’s who we are.”

Virginia state Del. Delores McQuinn was with Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam the night the racist photo surfaced last February. A member of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, she was shocked that the man she had helped elect two years earlier once wore blackface. But while she expected him to resign, she advised against it.

“It is not time to retreat,” Ms. McQuinn says she told him. “It is time to teach. This is a moment to turn this pain for all of us into something different.”

Her words must have stuck.

Six months later, the white governor received standing ovations from a mostly black crowd, including some who had called for him to step down. As he marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves in August, Governor Northam addressed Virginia’s contradictory history with racism – and by extension, his own. 

“I’ve had to confront some painful truths,” he said at Fort Monroe, the landing site for the country’s first African slaves. “Among those truths was my own incomplete understanding regarding race and equity. ... But I also learned that the more I know, the more I can do.”

Mr. Northam’s political survival has been aided in part by unusual circumstances, including the fact that his potential successors were embroiled in scandals of their own, and that Virginia law already prevented him from running again when his term ends in January 2022. Certainly, not everyone has given him a pass.

Still, his ability to recover even partially from what seemed to many a career-ending incident speaks to both his constituents’ capacity to forgive and his own willingness to learn. As other politicians from Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau grapple with their own blackface scandals, Mr. Northam’s experience presents a possible model for moving forward.

‘The right decision’ to forgive

The February release of a photo from Mr. Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook caused nationwide uproar. Two men were pictured – one in blackface, the other in Ku Klux Klan robes.

Mr. Northam initially apologized and said he was in the photo. Then in a bizarre press conference the next day, he said he wasn’t, but had worn blackface another time. An independent investigation three months later could not identify the individuals in the photo. 

After meeting with the governor, the state’s Legislative Black Caucus demanded he resign, as did many prominent Democrats nationwide. But from the night the scandal broke, he refused to step down. Virginia governors can’t succeed themselves, and Mr. Northam has made clear this will be his last elected office. “He had absolutely nothing to lose by staying in office, and everything to gain,” says Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Northam was able to remain in office in part due to separate scandals with his potential successors (his lieutenant governor has been accused of sexual assault, a charge he denies, while the state’s attorney general admitted to wearing blackface in college). But he also had support from most black Virginians. February polls showed that almost 60% of African Americans in the state didn’t think he should resign; a similar share didn’t consider him racist.

Today, many African Americans – especially in older generations – say they are willing to forgive him, as long as there’s evident repentance. 

“That’s a part of our DNA,” says Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck. “We talk about forgiveness. We took it all in stride, because that’s who we are.”

Mr. Northam promised he would spend his two remaining years in office promoting racial equity. And while skeptics questioned his motives, many African Americans say they find his efforts sincere. A fifth of the state’s electorate, many black Virginians felt they had more to gain from Mr. Northam staying in office than leaving, says Mr. Johnson.

The governor’s equity-based reforms since February have included creating advisory boards on racial issues and removing Confederate monuments. Mr. Northam has also spent months meeting with black leaders on a statewide reconciliation tour – leaders like Danville Mayor Alonzo Jones. 

Danville is a low-income, heavily African American city on the North Carolina border. When the governor visited, Mr. Jones was concerned about tokenism. “What is it that you want from us?” Mr. Jones says he asked. The governor responded by asking what he could do for Danville. Since then, Mr. Northam has returned several times, and the mayor says their offices have been in constant contact.

“I think we made the right decision [to forgive],” says Mr. Jones. “No, we made the right decision.” 

To James “J.J.” Minor, a community advocate, president of the Richmond NAACP, and Delegate McQuinn’s son, the scandal showed the extent of Virginia’s racist past – not that Mr. Northam is a racist today.

“I don’t see racism in him,” he says. “I don’t see it because of the work that he’s doing now, which African Americans are benefiting from.” 

“People can continue to talk about yesterday,” says Mr. Minor. “I want to talk about tomorrow.” 

More work ahead

Still, as the governor serves out his term, scrutiny remains. Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder – who was the nation’s first black governor – says the scandal continues to cast a shadow over Mr. Northam’s time in office, including any reforms. 

“If he’s doing these things as a result of some degree of atonement or an apology, it has a different ring to it,” says Mr. Wilder, who is facing an allegation of sexual harassment from a former student, which he denies. 

Younger generations in particular are less forgiving. 

“I don’t think that politicians should be considered robots. They’re going to make mistakes and they’re human,” says Mikaili Lee, a senior at Norfolk State University, a historically black university. “But for certain things, where [there’s] an obvious lack of judgment, there’s a lack of accountability.”

Mr. Lee doesn’t think Mr. Northam should have resigned, but he says there should have been consequences. He prefers the governor’s policies to those of Republicans, but says Virginia politics sometimes feels like a choice “between two evils.”  

recent poll by the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg found that 47% of Virginians today approve of Mr. Northam’s performance in office, while 35% disapprove. That’s an improvement from February, when his approval fell to 32%. It’s also better than President Donald Trump’s approval rating in the state, which is at 39%.   

For many African Americans in the state, the face of racism today isn’t Mr. Northam, but President Trump. The Legislative Black Caucus boycotted the president’s visit for America’s 400th anniversary of representative government. Not so for the governor’s appearance at the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves.

“[Governor Northam’s] incident just revealed the fact that racism was real,” says Ms. McQuinn. “Donald Trump continues to perpetuate it.”

She thinks the scandal will stain the governor’s legacy, but won’t become the legacy itself. If he was willing to learn, she was willing to forgive. 

True progress requires all sides at the table, says Soji Akomolafe, chair of the political science department at Norfolk State University. As long as they think their interests lie with him today, many African Americans are willing to work with Mr. Northam, Dr. Akomolafe says – even if he admitted to wearing blackface, his ancestors owned slaves, and he lives in the capital of the Confederacy.

Dr. Akomolafe is launching a university think tank for African American public policy and has invited the governor to the opening.

“I don’t see any reason why I have to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” he says. “He who has not committed a sin, let him cast the first stone.”

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