The Corner

Politics & Policy

Ralph Northam Can’t Remember Whether He Was the Klansman or in Blackface

According to state lawmakers who met with him, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said he cannot remember whether he was the person in blackface or the person in the Ku Klux Klan robes  picture in his 1984 medical school yearbook. This morning, quite a few Virginians across the political spectrum are calling for his resignation; he has a press conference scheduled for later today.

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.

Back in 2017, neither Democratic option in the Virginia gubernatorial primary represented what the party’s angry grassroots progressives wanted to see.  Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam voted for George W. Bush twice and Republicans tried to get him to switch parties in 2009. Former congressman Tom Perriello wanted to bar insurance coverage of abortion and was endorsed by the National Rifle Association. Over the course of the primary, both renounced just about all their past non-liberal stances and took stances more in line with those of Bernie Sanders.

Northam had few positions he wasn’t willing to change. As a state legislator, he opposed a ban on sanctuary cities; during the campaign, he said he would support a ban on sanctuary cities. Throughout the campaign, Northam denounced Gillespie as racist, calling his ads about sanctuary cities “racist rhetoric and fearmongering.” Northam argued, during the campaign, that Rick Gates — at that point, arrested and charged but not yet convicted — should be barred from voting. At the same time, he ran ads declaring that one of his proudest achievements was the restoration of rights for convicted felons.

How each gubernatorial candidate handled the issue of the Confederate statues was illustrative. Northam’s GOP rival Ed Gillespie wanted localities to make the decision on whether to keep the statues but said he preferred for them to be kept in place with a greater historical context, while Northam wanted localities to make the decision but preferred them to be moved to a museum with greater historical context. Quite a few people chose to believe that the space between those two stances was a major distinction between noble principles and shameful racism.

Northam has been in office for a little more than a year, but he may be remembered as one of its most infamous, and not merely because of the amazingly missed yearbook photo. You no doubt have read about his horrifying remarks defending the legislation that would permit abortion up until birth (and, in the description of Northam, shortly thereafter). He helped negotiate the state’s ludicrous giveaway to Amazon to get the company to place part of its new headquarters in Crystal City.

Northam declared during the campaign, “Systematic racism still exists.” And apparently was embraced by at least a few young men in 1984 in one of the state’s medical schools.

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