clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The conservative argument that Northam’s yearbook page proves liberals are the real racists, explained

Republicans believe liberals use racism accusations as incredulous political bludgeons.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam holds a press conference to discuss a recently-surfaced racist yearbook photo in February 2019. Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images

There’s a clear-cut case to call for Gov. Ralph Northam’s resignation. At the absolute best, he’s not sure if he’s one of two smiling faces in a photo on his medical school yearbook page — one wearing blackface, the other wearing the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. But for some on the right calling for him to step down amid the yearbook page controversy, the motivation isn’t really (or at least not just) about the racist photo itself.

Northam should resign. He is governor of a state that required the Supreme Court to act in favor of interracial couples and their right to marry in 1967, one that attempted to evade school desegregation, and one that still celebrates Confederate Memorial Day every May. In no way should that state be governed by a man who found wearing either blackface or a robe of the KKK — a terrorist organization — to be a good idea when he was 25 years old and attending medical school.

But for some Republicans, the controversy holds additional context. First and foremost, they argue that the photograph shows Northam and his allies’ claims that his Republican gubernatorial opponent, Ed Gillespie, was running “the most racist campaign in Virginia history” was merely cheap politicking.

Second, they were already deeply disgusted with Northam over his support of a bill that would roll back abortion access restrictions to the point that, they argue, would allow infanticide. Asked on a radio show about what would happen if a late-term abortion procedure failed, Northam said “the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

However, while that context does nothing to make Northam’s repulsive photograph even remotely acceptable, the opposite is also true. Gillespie’s campaign, arguably spurred by a near-defeat to a primary candidate with close ties to the alt-right, ran a campaign that used fearmongering over NFL protests, Confederate memorials and Latino gangs to push moderate Virginians into his camp. And had Northam said absolutely nothing about abortion this week, that would not make his yearbook photograph any more appropriate.

Northam’s weird response to a racist photo

On Friday afternoon, news broke that Northam’s page in a 1984 medical school yearbook at Eastern Virginia Medical School shows two people — one in blackface, the other in a KKK costume. At first, Northam admitted to appearing in the photograph, issuing an apology that stated, “Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive.”

The denunciations have been fast and furious. Virginia Democratic officials, major Democratic Party figures, and presidential candidates, including Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, denounced Northam’s actions and asked him to resign from office. Harris tweeted, “the stain of racism should have no place in the halls of government.” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez also called for Northam to resign.

But since that apology, Northam has denied appearing in the photograph (while admitting, I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe.” ) And during a Saturday press conference, he appeared to attempt to defend his actions by saying that the photograph in his yearbook was not of him, though he had done blackface in the past, even nearly performing the moonwalk in reference to a blackface tribute to Michael Jackson the governor said he once did.

The updated apology, as you can imagine, was not received well by either political allies or foes.

The story is, in part, about abortion

Conservatives watching the controversy unfold were seeing it do so in part through the lens of a story that broke last week, one that had outraged many in the anti-abortion camp of the GOP. In fact, by Friday afternoon, when his bafflingly racist yearbook photograph was first publicized and then verified, Northam was already in boiling political waters — over not race but abortion. Specifically, Virginia House Bill 2491, a piece of legislation to roll back a number of abortion requirements, including a 24-hour waiting period and a mandate that second-trimester procedures take place in a hospital.

As my colleague Anna North reported this week:

Gov. Northam, a Democrat, was asked about the bill in a radio interview on Wednesday, and his response only added to the controversy. Appearing to discuss what would happen if a child was born after a failed attempt at abortion, he said, “the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

Some took Northam’s comments as an endorsement of infanticide. “In just a few years pro-abortion zealots went from ‘safe, legal, and rare’ to ‘keep the newborns comfortable while the doctor debates infanticide,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) in a statement on Wednesday.

No wonder, then, that many conservatives connected his abortion comments to his yearbook photograph.

And it’s worth noting that the photograph began circulating via a right-leaning website with close ties to both the failed Roy Moore Senate campaign and conspiracy theorists. The same site claimed that a University of North Carolina professor was responsible for the death of a woman at the Unite the Right rally held in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (He wasn’t.)

Some conservatives argue that many claims of GOP racism are mere political cudgels

But there’s something else going on, something deeper: For some on the right, Northam’s photograph served as political vindication, proof positive that Democrats can be just as racist as Republicans. In fact, even more so, because they pretend to be otherwise and then use race, in the view of some on the right, as a weapon against them. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote back in 2010, “race is used as a cudgel to discredit [conservatives] in a way that would never be applied to a political movement on the left.”

And those conservatives are pointing to Northam’s condemnation of his 2017 gubernatorial opponent, Ed Gillespie, as a prime example, arguing that Gillespie was unfairly defamed as a racist by the Northam campaign and its allies. Specifically, they reference a mailer sent by the Northam campaign that tied Gillespie to President Trump and the Unite the Right rally held in August 2017.

As Jim Geraghty wrote for National Review on Saturday:

The state’s Democrats are choking on the irony: Northam’s landslide victory in 2017 was interpreted as a furious backlash against President Trump, driven in large part by Democratic accusations of the Republican party’s inherent racism and the hideous display of indisputable racism during the violence in Charlottesville. A Democratic group’s ad depicted a black pickup truck with a Confederate flag, an Ed Gillespie bumper sticker, and a Gadsden-flag license plate chasing and attempting to run down minority children.

But let’s add more context to the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election, which was anything but an example of political piety. First and foremost, the Gillespie campaign repeatedly attempted to tie Ralph Northam to the violence of the gang MS-13. In fact, his campaign released four ads saying as much, like the one below.

And the candidate Gillespie defeated in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Corey Stewart, went on to win the Republican primary for the United States Senate, while enjoying friendships with Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler and former Wisconsin Republican House candidate (and anti-Semite) Paul Nehlen, whom Stewart described as a “hero.” Back when he was running for governor against Gillespie, Corey Stewart’s campaign even paid a consulting firm with deep ties to the same outlet that first released Northam’s yearbook photos.

In fact, it was Stewart’s campaign and its remarkable performance against Gillespie — losing the primary by just 1.2 points — that may have influenced Gillespie’s campaign the most, at least according to Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist and purported ally of the alt-right. In an interview with the Washington Post, Bannon said of Gillespie’s campaign, “Corey Stewart is the reason Gillespie is going to win ... it was the Trump-Stewart talking points that got Gillespie close and even maybe to victory.”

And by “Trump-Stewart talking points,” Bannon meant not just the ads about MS-13, but two ads paid for by the Gillespie campaign that attacked Northam for supporting the removal of Confederate memorials, and a mailer that attacked NFL players protesting against racial injustice, stating, “You’d never take a knee ... so take a stand on Election Day.”

Northam’s then-undiscovered yearbook photograph didn’t force Ed Gillespie to take on the mantle of Trumpism via attack ads that implied Northam, who voted for George W. Bush twice, was a no-good liberal who “disdained” everyday Virginians because he thought Confederate statues should be moved to museums instead of serving as memorials to the Civil War’s silver medalists. (This was, ironically, quite close to Gillespie’s position on the issue.) Rather, it was Stewart’s near-victory in the Republican primary, and tangentially, the agenda of Donald Trump as interpreted by Stewart’s campaign. In Bannon’s words, Gillespie was “embracing Trump’s agenda as personified by Corey’s platform.”

But at the same time, the reprehensibility of the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial campaign does not an excuse for blackface make. If Republicans calling for Northam to resign are doing so more because of his comments on abortion and less so because of the Republican Party’s “tough” stance on racism, they aren’t alone in doing so.

Joining them are national Democrats and the NAACP, whose president and CEO, Derrick Johnson, again called for Northam to resign following his debacle of a press conference:

We are deeply disappointed in Gov. Ralph Northam decision to not resign today. His failure to take accountability for his actions is sickening. He says he used shoe polish on his face to mimic Michael Jackson, yet denies he ever used Black face. This is unacceptable for any leader. He contradicts his earlier decision to admit responsibility to now say he had nothing to do with the photo. Implicit bias is bias, and it’s clear that someone who cannot distinguish from using shoe polish on his face to imitate a Black person clearly suffers from this or is delusional. This image is example of the historical effects of institutional racism and the lack of awareness of the discrimination against of Black people. Racism of any kind cannot be excused nor overlooked. We stand by our call for his resignation. He will now have to answer to his constituents in Virginia who will find it difficult to make peace with his choice.

Northam is currently refusing to resign from office, and the fact that some of those calling for his exit are thinking more about abortion than racism, or about previous claims of the GOP’s own issues with race, are likely part of his current mental calculus. It shouldn’t be.

Blackface and Klan robes are overwhelmingly, almost inconceivably unacceptable, no matter one’s political opposition. Particularly by a 25-year-old training to be a medical professional. Even more so by a governor.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.