By Katy Moore
Managing Director of Corporate Strategy
Director, Institute for Corporate Social Responsibility
Over the last few days, as the story of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook photo featuring a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes has played out, I’ve had numerous conversations with white friends and family about whether he should step down. I’m glad my white circles trust me enough to talk about race-related topics with me. But, I’m not a racism or racial equity expert. I am simply a daughter of the South who has embarked on a learning journey that has required a painful examination of my own deeply-ingrained belief systems, biases, privileges, and an acknowledgement of my own role in perpetuating racism and racial inequities.
The typical conversation about Governor Northam in my white circles has gone something like this: “Why should a ‘good man’s’ career be ruined over something that happened 30 years ago? After all, he’s apologized and asked for forgiveness. And, what’s so bad about blackface anyway?”
Why isn’t an apology enough?
The Governor’s initial apology seemed sincere and many, myself included, were inclined to forgive him – especially if he utilized this moment to spark conversations around race and racism. However, when Governor Northam changed his tune, it smacked of damage control, marred his chance to begin rebuilding trust, and squandered his opportunity for learning and community-building.
Even with what felt like disingenuous political maneuvering, many of my white friends and family are eager to forgive the Governor’s past actions. They are (ironically) loathe to condemn a (white) man for youthful indiscretions. This begs the question, should Governor Northam’s repentance matter more than the feelings of the thousands of Virginians who feel betrayed by this racist act and what it represents?
In many ways, as a white woman, I want to forgive Governor Northam. This could, after all, have easily been one of the many men who have helped shape my life. But, at some point, we (white folks) have to face the consequences of our actions and own the fact that we have all – intentionally or unintentionally – contributed to our society’s racial disparities. How can racism and its pervasive effects possibly be dismantled until a tidal wave of white people understand it and take responsibility and action for our role in this unfair system?
So, no, Governor Northam’s (recanted) apology isn’t enough.
Should past actions ruin careers?
At the time he was in medical school, Governor Northam was old enough to know right from wrong. Judging by the Governor’s swift apology after its discovery, I am going to assume that he is either in this photo or that another similar photo exists. Either way, he clearly didn’t think dressing in blackface or donning a KKK hood was a problem.
Governor Northam attended an institution of higher learning that accepted this type of bigoted behavior, so much so, that Eastern Virginia Medical School documented it in the yearbook. The likelihood that this environment reinforced a belief system of white superiority and black inferiority is quite high. The likelihood that this belief system – conscious or not – was then perpetuated by Governor Northam and other graduates who would go on to impact the lives of people of color as decision-makers, doctors, and public officials is also very high. In their medical practices, for instance, it is conceivable that these doctors contributed to long-running racial health disparities or undertreated their Black patients’ pain based on racial biases normalized through the type of behavior captured in this photo. This is about much more than a yearbook photo or long-ago moment in time.
In his race for governor, Governor Northam, a Democrat, ran against an opponent tied to a president who has been accused of racism. Many Virginians, including 87 percent of Black voters, supported candidate Northam. I cast my vote for him partly because of his career of service and, partly, as a rejection of his opponent’s party’s seemingly racist views and beliefs. With the emergence of this glimpse into Governor Northam’s past, I no longer believe that he can effectively represent all of Virginia’s residents – particularly the 20 percent of its citizens who are Black. A politician’s license to serve is based on the trust and confidence that citizens bestow upon them. That trust is broken.
Why is blackface so bad?
Many are calling for Governor Northam to step down. Unfortunately, even if he resigns and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax is sworn in as the Commonwealth’s second-ever Black governor, Virginia will not magically become a post-racial utopia.
Racism has deep roots here. This incident is just one example of how overt racism shows up in our society. Similar to the countless cell phone videos documenting racist acts, police brutality, and racial discrimination, this yearbook photo should serve as another piece of evidence to spur white Americans to deepen conversations about race, our racist past, and our role in perpetuating current racial inequities.
It is outrageous that in 2019 life outcomes can still be predicted by race. Calling for Governor Northam’s resignation cannot distract us from the real work that needs to be done to dismantle the deep-seated racism that underlies our societal systems. We should care about racist imagery and hold our public officials to the highest of standards. But, we should care even more about the deep inequities that still exist in our society based on nothing more than the level of melanin in our skin and a false narrative about white superiority.
If you’d like to learn more about racism, white privilege, unconscious bias, etc., I encourage you to embark on your own exploration. Here are a few resources that I have found helpful: