It’s been two weeks since the news of a racist photo on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page — and Northam’s subsequent admission to wearing blackface in the 1980s — threw the state into disarray. While Northam is looking to atone for his actions, black organizers and activists say that he has a lot to do before he can be forgiven.
Northam, a Democrat, first came under fire in early February after a conservative news outlet reported that a photo of two men, one in blackface, the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit, was prominently featured on Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page. The governor initially apologized and said that he was one of the people in the photo, only to reverse course and deny any involvement a day later. But he did admit that he wore blackface in 1984, when he put shoe polish on his face to portray Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
Northam’s comments and subsequent press conference sparked calls for his resignation from former political allies and civil rights groups, but the Democrats in line to replace him have also been engulfed in scandal.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is only the second black official elected statewide in Virginia’s history and who initially seemed poised to ascend to the governorship, is now facing calls to resign after two women publicly accused him of sexual assault and rape. The man who follows Fairfax in the line of succession, Attorney General Mark Herring, admitted that he also wore blackface when he dressed up as rap icon Kurtis Blow for a University of Virginia party in 1980.
So far, no one has resigned, even as calls for Northam and Fairfax to step down persist. Herring is also reportedly reconsidering his political future, and some groups have called for him to leave office, but these demands have not been as frequent.
Northam declared last week that he will stay in office, promising to help Virginia “heal” and use the blackface scandal as an opportunity to be more active in addressing racial inequality. That hasn’t stopped protests, though, or ended calls for his immediate resignation.
The Virginia story is simultaneously a local and national issue, with Northam’s refusal to step down sparking questions about his future and his potential impact on the Democratic Party, which counts black voters as part of its core demographic. These same questions are being asked in Virginia, where young black organizers and activists who supported Northam’s gubernatorial campaign are grappling with a deep disappointment in the governor’s admission that he used blackface, and frustration with his refusal to resign.
They argue that while the blackface scandal has centered on Northam, it points to a deeper problem embedded in the roots of Virginia, a state that once served as the seat of the Confederacy. They note that Northam’s gubernatorial campaign benefitted from black voters’ desire to fight against this history and its modern versions.
As Northam attempts to move on from the scandal, activists and organizers say that the question at the front of their minds is if he can effectively govern now that he has been directly connected to the racist history he was elected to help overturn. As of now, they say, Northam hasn’t done enough to answer that question.
Black organizers supported Northam in an effort to start a new chapter in Virginia. His scandal is a reminder of how difficult that will be.
The Virginia story has moved quickly, with news of Northam’s yearbook photo rapidly spiraling into a cascading series of controversies that have attracted national attention. In recent interviews with Vox, Virginia organizers and civil rights leaders say that in a state grappling with its history of white supremacy, a photo like the one on Northam’s yearbook page isn’t really a shock.
“Racism has historically been a part of the culture of Virginia,” says Jasmine Leeward, a staff member with New Virginia Majority, a group focused on building power in marginalized communities. “This year we’re acknowledging 400 years of the first enslaved people who arrived in Virginia. We live in the capital of the former Confederacy. There are certain things that disappoint you, but the history of Virginia has prepared us for this moment.”
Still, Leeward says, lowered expectations don’t lessen the sting of what has happened. In 2017, New Virginia Majority was one of several groups who endorsed Northam, Fairfax, and Herring, working with other groups to launch an outreach effort encouraging black voters to use their vote to stand up to racism, and continue a recent surge in black voting in the state.
Strong turnout among black Virginians, coupled with the fact that 87 percent of black voters in Virginia backed the Democrat, pushed Northam to a decisive victory over Republican Ed Gillespie. The win drove increased attention to arguments that if Democrats want to win elections, they need to pay more attention to black voters.
For Leeward, Northam’s blackface scandal cast a shadow over that victory.
That sentiment is shared by others. ”When you know the background and history of Virginia, certain things don’t shock you anymore,” says Rev. Joshua Cole, a current candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates and the president of the Stafford NAACP. Last week, Cole was part of a protest outside the governor’s mansion, and his NAACP chapter has joined the Virginia NAACP and the national NAACP in demanding that Northam resign.
Cole, who also served as a former staff assistant for the Virginia Senate, explains that while the yearbook photo was his initial concern, what bothered him more was the February 2 press conference where the governor walked back his first apology, telling reporters that he was not actually in the yearbook photo.
“The backtracking and the press conference made it look like a selfish motive to protect his legacy, which really hurt,” Cole says. “Us putting you in office was for the greater good of Virginia.”
For many black activists, organizers, and politicians, discussing Northam over the past two weeks has been an exercise in carefully threading a series of needles. Statements calling for Northam’s resignation have largely avoided any commentary on Northam himself, and black leaders have explained that the issue has little to do with him as a person, and instead hinges on the fact that he has thrown the governorship into controversy.
Many acknowledge that this is an opportunity for Northam to better understand why blackface is offensive and why his use of it has angered so many. But they also argue that while he is capable of redeeming himself and becoming a stronger voice on matters of racial injustice, Northam isn’t the leader Virginia needs right now.
It’s a nuanced message, but also one that has been somewhat muted by other developments. Last week when Northam confirmed that he would not resign, he promised to refocus his agenda on addressing racial inequality. The governor says that he is reading books like Alex Haley’s Roots and articles like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Case for Reparations, in an effort to better understand history and why his actions were wrong.
In a weekend interview with CBS’s Gayle King, Northam said he would work to regain Virginia’s trust. “Virginia ... needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass,” Northam said. “And that’s why I’m not going anywhere.”
For some black activists and organizers, Northam’s insistence that he can still lead Virginia has been grating. But Northam has found support among other black voters in the state. A recent poll by the Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University found that Virginians were evenly split over whether Northam should leave office. The poll also found that black Virginians support Northam more than their white counterparts, with 58 percent of black adults wanting him to stay in office, compared to 46 percent of whites.
Since polls have found that a majority of black Americans do not approve of blackface, that result likely speaks to black Virginians, like black voters in general, being exceptionally pragmatic. As many stories on the Virginia scandals have noted, a scenario where Northam, Fairfax, and Herring all step down at once could hand the governorship to Republican Speaker Kirk Cox. It’s possible that black respondents looked at this possibility and determined that Northam’s prior use of blackface, while offensive, didn’t warrant his resignation.
Still, the findings have complicated calls for Northam’s resignation, particularly among some black legislators.
“We are being asked to speak not just for every black person in this state, but really every black person in this country, and this is a heavy burden. Black people are not monolithic,” one state official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Washington Post.
Others are continuing to demand that Northam step down. On Wednesday, protesters gathered outside of the governor’s mansion for a rally, demanding that Northam be held accountable for his actions and leave his position. “He’s continuing to talk his way out of a mistake that he acted his way into. We need action,” Francesca Leigh Davis, a protester and co-leader of RVA Dirt, a group focused on community engagement, policy, and politics in Richmond, told reporters.
Northam says what he did was wrong. But black organizers and elected officials want more than an apology.
Much of recent coverage of the Virginia scandals has focused on the question of whether Northam, Fairfax, and Herring will resign. But activists and organizers say the focus on the futures of the three politicians obscures a larger story about the black voters who propelled them into office.
To understand that, it’s helpful to go back to 2017, when then-Lt. Gov. Northam faced off against Ed Gillespie, an establishment Republican who embraced Trumpism as he campaigned during the general election. Gillespie defended Confederate monuments, ran ads linking Northam’s 2017 vote on sanctuary cities to MS-13, and criticized NFL players for kneeling to protest racial injustice.
At the time, black voters explained that they were dealing with high levels of racial anxiety after both the 2016 election and the actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. As a result, black Virginians saw their vote as a chance to push Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, toward a future in which the state not only acknowledged its past, but also addressed the needs of marginalized communities in the present.
But the recent scandals have been a sobering reminder of how much farther the state needs to go. As the Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk notes, for many Virginians, the Northam controversy has “reveal[ed] him to be cut from the same cloth as the other elites of the Old Dominion, where the Lost Cause doesn’t appear to be all that lost, and where reinforcing the old hegemony has often been a bipartisan project.”
In interviews with Vox and other outlets, black organizers and activists have argued that the situation has been nothing short of disappointing and frustrating.
With Northam staying in office in hopes of riding out the scandal, the focus now shifts to how he will address the issue moving forward. On Tuesday, the governor’s office released a statement touting Northam’s record on restoring civil rights to people with felony convictions, a group that is disproportionately black. The Washington Post reported last week that the governor’s office is planning a statewide “reconciliation tour”, and Northam will attend a February 21 discussion on race at the historically black Virginia Union University.
But while Northam has tried to focus on what his office has done, he has also stumbled further, drawing complaints after he referred to the first Africans brought to Virginia as “indentured servants” during this week’s CBS interview. Black legislators are also irritated about Northam’s initial lack of public opposition to a recently passed tax bill they say does not do enough to support poor and low-income Virginians. The governor has since called for increased funding for some programs supporting marginalized groups.
While Northam’s early efforts to atone are necessary, some black leaders in Virginia argue that the fact that he is sorry does not mean that he is forgiven. Rather, they say, his actions and policy agenda will show how truly committed he is to righting his wrongs. And activists are being very specific with the steps they want to see Northam make: The New York Times notes, for example, that the ACLU of Virginia has called for Northam to support a constitutional amendment granting people with felony convictions the right to vote.
In a letter sent to Northam this week, an activist group called the Virginia Black Politicos outlined their own set of policy proposals, including the removal of Confederate monuments, the creation of funds supporting black entrepreneurship and Virginia’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and a new office focused on issues affecting people of color.
“It is not fair for either the Governor or Attorney General to be able to tell us how they are sorry, [or] set their own stage for what they will do,” the group, which the Times describes as a “coalition of black elected officials and civic leaders”, wrote. “Nor is it wise to pretend as if this will simply blow over.” The group says that it still prefers that Northam resign, but wants a serious commitment from him if he does remain in office.
“If he doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of [history], then he needs to make sure the resources are spread in abundance for the people who got him elected and who have been carrying [the Democratic] party,” Charlottesville City Councillor Wes Bellamy, a member of the coalition, told Buzzfeed.
Leeward, of the New Virginia Majority, agrees with this sentiment. But she also argues that the controversy surrounding Northam and other Democratic politicians is a potent reminder that it will ultimately be up to marginalized communities to secure the changes they want to see in Virginia. “It’s never been about an individual politician, or an individual scandal,” Leeward says. “It’s been about our community and what’s best for them.”