Ralph Northam’s Forgivable Sin

Virgnia's governor has to resign. But not because of some 35-year-old photos.

I’ve been on the road the last few days dealing with my mom’s estate. I’ve been following the dust-up over Ralph Northam’s yearbook photo and want to weigh in.  A starting point is a Twitter thread from over the weekend by comedian and blogger Robert A. George, which I’m excerpting here with cleaned-up format:

A few tweets have run along the lines of, “Even in the South, 35 years ago, everyone knew that wearing a Klan outfit or blackface was racist.” Having been in college myself at that time, I started nodding.

But then I pause. EVERYONE knew that this type of behavior is racist? That means Northam must have been racist (he admits in his Friday statement that what he did was racist). It means his partner in crime was racist. But there was a compiler/editor of the yearbook, right? That supposedly responsible person accepted Northam’s photo. — and let it go, right? Was there a faculty advisor? Did that person approve it too? My point here is that either everyone knew this was something REALLY ugly and racist OR they were doing something what they bizarrely thought was “funny” and no one stopped to think, “Oh, it’s funny, but really ugly and maybe we shouldn’t do it.” IOW, the 20/20 hindsight we have now that EVERYONE knew this was something you didn’t do might not have been as strong back then.

To make it a bit clearer::a personal anecdote: I went to a small liberal arts college in Maryland (below the Mason-Dixon line). Of a student body of 400, I was one of five or six blacks over 4+ years. In 1985, senior class leaders bounced around ideas for a fundraiser. They settled upon a “slave auction” — seniors would be “auctioned” to odd jobs for the winning bidders. Yeah, yeah, already, you’re thinking, “What the hell?” In fairness, this was a school where which studies Greek and Latin classics. So, it’s theoretically possible to do a “Greek” or “Roman”-style slave auction. Even so, I approached the planners and said tread carefully. I didn’t hear about it anymore, so I assumed it got dropped. Instead, I awoke to find posters declaring, “Welcome to 1865: It’s a real live slave auction!” Um, WHAT?

I, well, got upset. But, here’s the thing. There were quite of few other, white friends — including other seniors — who were stunned. There was an African-American underclassman who I’d become friends with who came up to me with whatever the 1985 version of “WTF?” was.

I put together a strongly-worded letter (no, seriously, it was an “open letter” to the student body), got it co-signed with a couple dozen other people infuriated, stuffed copies in mailboxes. A day or so later, the fundraiser was cancelled. Yes, there were bruised feelings.

My African American pal and I had a tense discussion with the organizers. We cleared the air. And, it should be noted, I’m friendly with them to this day. I don’t consider them racist then or now. It was an insensitive action — but an ultimately learning moment.

In the days that followed, I felt out of sorts. Even though I had many friends who had my back and immediately supported me and whatever I wanted to do in response, I was still feeling alone, wondering if I did the right thing. Then, something happened. The auditorium attendant (African American, like the entire grounds crew). Jimmy, came up to me. I had chatted with him over the years as I had a work-study job in the dining hall. He said to me, “Thank you for speaking up about that. These kids, they just don’t know.”

It had quite the impact. “These kids just don’t know.” In truth, *I* was a “kid” myself. I didn’t know. Irritated as I was with the class leaders who ignored my cautionary heads-up, in fact, this was bigger than me — bigger than them. Other eyes were watching.

So, beware the “EVERYONE knew such-and-such was racist in 1985” trope. Ralph Northam is a few years older than I am. He *should* have known better. But so should several other people involved in getting that photo into that yearbook (Hey, kids! It WASN’T a selfie!)

The definition of racism isn’t as set in stone as we might like. The spectrum of racially insensitive or “microaggression” (ugh.) to out and racism is, to use an in-vogue phrase, “fluid.” Some get it right away. Others? “They just don’t know.”

At 53, I’m a few years younger than Northam. I graduated a rural Alabama high school in 1984 and, after a year and a half at West Point, finished my undergraduate and masters degrees in a rural Alabama university in 1987 and 1988. Confederate flags were everywhere, although beginning to be controversial. One of the most prestigious fraternities on campus—and they were all segregated in fact, if not officially—had an annual party in which attendees wore Confederate uniforms.

Even in that environment, while I don’t understand it nearly the way I do today, it was quite clear that blackface and white hoods were racist symbols. And my dad was a retired Army first sergeant working as a retail manager, not an attorney and judge as Northam’s was. It’s inconceivable to me that he didn’t know what he was doing had racial connotations, even if he might have blanched at the notion that he was racist.

But, as George points out, gatekeepers let this in the yearbook. Not a high school yearbook.  Not even a college yearbook. But a medical school yearbook. Presumably, at least one student editor—and one presumes more—and a faculty advisor thought the photo montage was suitable for publication. And, as CNN reports, it wasn’t just Northam’s page:

— On page 10 of the yearbook, a photo shows a man dressed up like a woman in a lowcut white dress, pearls, a black wig and blackface. Next to the photo is the caption, “‘Baby Love’, who ever thought Diana Ross would make it to medical school” — an apparent reference to the lead singer of the Supremes, a Motown singing group made up of three black women. A woman behind him is wearing a hat as if she is dressed like a witch. The photo is on a page full of photos of other student outings and parties.

— Later in the yearbook, in a section devoted to student personal pages, a photo of three men with their faces blackened wearing white dresses, white gloves, pearls and wigs appears. That photo appears on the page before Northam’s personal page. It is surrounded by other photos of this student at school and has no captions.

— On page 34, the pharmacology page, a photo of a white man, not in blackface, shows him holding a coffee mug bearing the words, “We can’t get fired! Slaves have to be sold.”

— On page 10, there’s also a photo of a man groping a mannequin with the words “I try never to divulge my true feelings while examining my patients.”

The last of these is a strange inclusion, in that there are no obvious racial overtones. But perhaps it exemplifies a bizarre spirit of tomfoolery throughout the publication. (Bizarre to me in that none of my high school or college yearbooks did this sort of thing; they were exceedingly dry and serious.)

Beyond that, Northam is 59 years old.  He first entered politics in 2007, successfully getting elected to the Virginia State Senate. He was re-elected in 2011. He was then elected Lieutenant Governor in 2013 and Governor in 2017. And he faced Democratic primary opponents in all of those races but one. Yet, those photos from a yearbook possessed by what one presumes is a significant number of current medical doctors in the Commonwealth—some of them surely Republicans—never surfaced until a tipster shared them with a blogger a few days ago.

The source of the tip appears to have been a medical school classmate or classmates of Northam who acted as a direct result of the abortion controversy that erupted earlier in the week, according to two people at Big League Politics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

“The revelations about Ralph Northam’s racist past were absolutely driven by his medical school classmate’s anger over his recent very public support for infanticide,” one of the two said.

This yearbook was published in 1984. It surfaced 35 years later, after four successful statewide races. And not because someone’s conscience was finally shocked by the rampant racism of his medical school class. No, it was because someone was angry over Northam’s abortion politics and correctly thought releasing the photos would be politically damaging.

Like my co-bloggers Steven Taylor and Doug Mataconis (a fellow Virginia resident), I think Northam is going to have to resign his post. His hamhanded handling of the scandal pretty much guarantees it. But the fact that the photos in question—not just Northam’s but others’—got through the editorial process at the time and didn’t surface until now is a pretty fair indicator that a whole lot of prominent Virginians didn’t think they were that big of a deal despite all the virtue signaling now going on from the political class.

It’s simply baffling to me that Northam has gotten this far in politics—hell, in life—and doesn’t understand that he needed to confess his sins and beg forgiveness. But, absent evidence of something more nefarious than some offensively bad attempts at humor as a 25-year-old, the crime here was certainly forgivable. Northam has been out of medical school 35 years now, serving as an Army doctor for six years and then as a pediatric surgeon for decades. He’s risen to governor of the state. One presumes that it would have been difficult to hide virulent racism that long.

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Timothy Watson says:

    James,

    I think it’s pretty telling that he initially apologized for appearing in the photograph attributed to him on his yearbook page. To appear in that photograph, he was either in blackface or in a Klan uniform. He would later say that photograph wasn’t of him during his press conference on Saturday.

    I joked on Twitter the other day, that I (born 1987) could guarantee with 100% certainty that there were no photographs on me either in blackface or in a Klan uniform. My brother (born 1982) said the same. I was talking to my dad (born 1948) today, and he said the exact same thing before I could retell my joke from a couple days previous. Both me and my brother grew up in rural Virginia, and my dad grew up in France, segregated Delaware, and rural Virginia (he was an Army brat).

    How is it that Northam had to spend an entire day just figuring out how many times he may have dressed in blackface or dressed in a Klan uniform just to deny that he was pictured in that photograph?

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  2. James Pearce says:

    The source of the tip appears to have been a medical school classmate or classmates of Northam who acted as a direct result of the abortion controversy that erupted earlier in the week, according to two people at Big League Politics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

    One of the most disturbing things about this story is a general lack of awareness that Northam was even embroiled in an “abortion controversy” earlier in the week. Brings to minds the words “epistemic closure.”

    I think that also explains something of how Northam has reacted. He started the week being accused of being a supporter of infanticide and by the end of the week, he was being labeled a lifelong racist. Imagine getting smashed, by “both sides,” over some trumped up nonsense in the course of a few days. And what do you do? Say, “I’m not a baby killer?” Say, “I’m not a racist?” How are you to you satisfy the people who only want your destruction?

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  3. James Pearce says:

    @Timothy Watson:

    I think it’s pretty telling that he initially apologized for appearing in the photograph attributed to him on his yearbook page.

    I think it’s telling that the apology meant nothing.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    I took this as an opportunity to have a conversation with my 21 year old daughter. I asked her “What do you think your kids will find as disqualifying in your generations wildness?” I had asked it a couple of times in the past but this was the first time it seemed to click with her.

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  5. Mark Ivey says:

    “I graduated a rural Alabama high school in 1984 and finished my undergraduate and masters degrees in a rural Alabama university in 1987 and 1988. Confederate flags were everywhere. But one of the most prestigious fraternities on campus—and they were all segregated in fact, if not officially—had an annual party in which attendees wore Confederate uniforms.”

    Things like this make me glad that i was born and raised in southern Nevada..

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  6. KM says:

    “Young and dumb” no longer flies as an excuse for behavior. Oh it might explain why it happened at that time but it’s no longer a justification on its own. Nor is the non-apology apology wherein you are so very deeply sorry this thing got noticed by the public and is upsetting them (and causing you trouble) but you’re not admitting guilt nor culpability. Forgiveness is no longer instantly granted just because you were big enough to offer a lip-service concession that maybe someone thinks this might not have been OK.

    What’s really telling is this photo was out there before the election and the GOP did nothing… meaning that someone else was easily able to find it and thus so should Northam’s team. They knew and didn’t care like the GOP did or they were so incompetent they couldn’t find it – either speaks very poorly of the campaign. Everyone just sort of looked at this picture (or multiple ones given his press conference) and when “meh, not a prob”. It’s always the cover-up that gets you or in this case, the de facto cover-up of people not giving a crap about something they *really* should have been out ahead of. It’s possible he could have survived this had he stuck to his original apology and then followed it up with a real course of action designed to show he was sincere in not being that guy anymore. People tend to forgive “young and dumb” *only* when you prove you’re not being that kind of dumb anymore.

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  7. just nutha says:

    The real story here is for the GOP in Virginia (and Nationwide?) racism isn’t an issue–it’s a tool. I suspect that the same is true of misogyny. I would guess that it’s also true of abortion, but we won’t know for sure until some GOP leader’s daughter or granddaughter needs one.

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  8. R. Dave says:

    That quoted set of tweets in the OP really hits home for me. My high school in Vermont in the early 90s had a “Senior Slave Day” fundraiser for the senior class trip where underclassmen could bid on seniors in an auction held in the theater. It never occurred to anyone to dress in blackface, of course, but the event itself would obviously be waaaaaayyyy over the line today. Mind you, it was on its way out and had been changed to “Senior Servant Day” by the time I graduated and was eliminated entirely shortly thereafter, but again, that’s Vermont in the 90s. Virginia in the 80s? I find it hard to believe these things were anywhere close to universally recognized as unacceptable racism in that context. I mean, we’re talking about less than 20 years after the Civil Rights Act and just a few years after anti-busing riots in Boston for crying out loud. I think folks just fail to realize how rapidly the world has changed in the last 30 years. Heck, blackface was still a common part of regularly-aired Saturday morning cartoon reruns like Tom & Jerry or Bugs Bunny in the 80s.

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  9. Stormy Dragon says:

    But then I pause. EVERYONE knew that this type of behavior is racist? That means Northam must have been racist (he admits in his Friday statement that what he did was racist).

    People tend to look at this from a virtue ethics standpoint: there’s a group of people who are racists and they do racist things, and there are a group of people who are non-racists and they don’t do racist things. Since they’re loathe to categorize people as wholly unredeemable, they then end up trying to argue that stuff like this isn’t racist.

    It’s may be far more useful to take a more deontological standpoint: certain actions are racist or not racist and that nearly everyone does racist actions sometimes. The focus should be less on identifying the people who need to be cast out and more identifying the actions that are racist and stopping them.

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  10. Neil J Hudelson says:

    That an apology that was immediately walked back the next day, and that during which the Governor considered moonwalking, isn’t being accepted as adequate truly is a mysterious and shocking development.

    Democrats should be ashamed of themselves.

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  11. DrDaveT says:

    @R. Dave:

    Virginia in the 80s? I find it hard to believe these things were anywhere close to universally recognized as unacceptable racism in that context.

    I have a colleague who was on the yearbook staff at William and Mary ten years earlier than that, in the ’70s. He says that there is zero chance that the W&M yearbook would have allowed that picture into the yearbook; it would have been squelched very early in the editorial process. At William and Mary. In the ’70s.

    So I don’t think the “they wasn’t woke yet” argument works — though it does start to raise some serious questions about the yearbook editorial staff at Northam’s medical school…

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  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    Regarding the “back in the 80s people didn’t know this was wrong” argument, apparently EVMS students still didn’t know it was wrong even in the 2010s:

    Northam’s medical school banned yearbooks in 2013 — after students posed in Confederate garb

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  13. Tyrell says:

    Questions, that may or may not have been addressed. They may or may not have answers at this point.
    Did anyone not raise this issue way before now?
    How did this yearbook get by the school administration? This certainly reflects on them. Does this yearbook have any other pictures like this one?
    Is it possible that this page was faked?
    Who goes back looking through yearbooks that are almost forty years old? And why?
    Has Governor Northrum been accused of any other racist actions?
    This sort of image in a higher education yearbook certainly was abhorrent in the 1980’s, and would have been even in the 1960’s.
    For some reason this brings back memories to me of the Walter Jenkins scandal.

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  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Tyrell:

    ORF, ORF, ORF!

    Oh look, a sealion!

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  15. Kari Q says:

    My African American pal and I had a tense discussion with the organizers. We cleared the air. And, it should be noted, I’m friendly with them to this day. I don’t consider them racist then or now. It was an insensitive action — but an ultimately learning moment.

    Black people, I’ve noticed, tend to be more pragmatic about these things. As John Blake put it in his essay at CNN:

    If black people only worked with white allies free of any racism, bias or past mistakes, we would be alone.

    This sort of pragmatism from African Americans suggest that the photo was survivable, if he’d stuck with his initial apology and pledged to work to fight racism going forward. It was everything that came after the initial apology that doomed him. He should resign soon. No reason to drag it out.

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  16. Kari Q says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:

    Yeah, call me when the Republicans care that an open white supremacist is in the House. Or that the president is a racist. We’ll worry about Democratic motes when you’ve dealt with Republican beams.

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  17. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Kari Q:

    I thought the sarcasm in my comment was pretty clear, but judging by the downvotes let me emphasize the comment was in jest.

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  18. Ken says:

    What was the name of this Medical school? Tobacco Road, Inc? I lived in Virginia (mostly rural) from 1979 to 2004, and I never saw any of this behavior. The whole thing gives me the creeps.

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  19. Kari Q says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    My apologies. It’s so hard to parody the right these days.

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  20. Catchling says:

    Future generations may struggle with the question of whether this or that American of today “knows” that Trumpism and MAGA hats are symbols of racism — less clear-cut than with KKK robes and blackface, but still, come on.

    There’s a sense in which the answer to those future people is “obviously not — it was just so commonplace, just the way things were back then”, and another sense in which it is “Yes. Yes, Trump followers tended to know it was wrong. A few of them reveled on the wrongness, Roger-Stone-style. Most just sort of sat with it, comfortably or uncomfortably.”

    It’s not that a bunch of white people were ignorant of the problems of blackface, it’s that they hadn’t developed a worldview with a robust enough anti-racist component to overcome social inertia and genuinely care about other races.

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  21. James Pearce says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:

    That an apology that was immediately walked back the next day, and that during which the Governor considered moonwalking, isn’t being accepted as adequate truly is a mysterious and shocking development.

    I heard someone mention sackcloth and ashes. What, I wonder, must the man do to apologize for something so risibly unimportant? (A yearbook picture from the 80s? C’mon…)

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  22. Eric Florack says:

    First of all it’s very telling to watch the Democrats eat their own on this business. and the whole thing is it wouldn’t have come out the way it did if it wasn’t so damned predictable. Somebody understood that he’d be pilloried for this crime oh, and guess what? They were right.

    But who is this somebody?
    Look, this is all speculation I grant you.
    But let’s find out who it is that was responsible for the picture the governor in black face showing up when it did. Isn’t the lieutenant governor high on the list of suspects simply because of the idea that he would be the one to benefit?

    I mean, we have a black lieutenant governor, whom it would be easy enough to presume, got annoyed at the picture, and recognizing that to become governor all he has to do is release that picture to the ever so politically correct press. Fairfax had the motivation, times two.

    And let’s say, again just for the sake of speculation, that the governor realizing where that picture being posted came from, decided to bring up the the well-established history of sexual assault against his lieutenant governor.
    Tit for tat, in other words.

    Again, this is all speculation. The surprising part is that it all fits with what we’ve been told so far.

    It’s amazing what happens to Democrats when their power is on the line. and the beauty is, all the participants in this clown show showed up in one car. The one with the jackass painted on the side of it.

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