Virginia’s problematic governor, Ralph Northam, who admitted to wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume in 1984 after first admitting, then denying he was pictured in blackface or a KKK robe in his medical school yearbook, sat down with Gregory S. Schneider of the Washington Post for the first interview since his press conference last week.
In the interview, Northam addressed the controversy and reiterated that he would not step down over the scandal, adding that he will focus the remainder of his term on fixing “racial inequity.” But Northam also showed an astounding ignorance of the history of racism and its continued consequences that Black Americans still face today.
“It’s been a horrific week for Virginia. A lot of individuals across Virginia have been hurt,” he said, strategically employing the passive voice to absolve himself, adding, “And so this has been a real, I think, an awakening for Virginia. It has really raised the level of awareness for racial issues in Virginia. And so we’re ready to learn from our mistakes.” It’s a weird way of using the royal “we” that allows Northam to dodge acknowledging the fact that it was his actions that caused this pain.
Instead, Northam tried to frame the incident as a learning opportunity for all of Virginia. Which, of course, is absurd. There is a large segment of Virginia that does not need “an awakening” to understand racism because they deal with it daily. Once again, even in trying to tamp down his racism, Northam exposes it. The Virginia he speaks of here is white Virginia, not the entire state. But it’s Black voters in Virginia who elected him, which makes his betrayal that much worse.
Northam then spoke of his conversations with prominent African American leaders in Virginia who have taken the time to patiently explain racism to him. One colleague actually had to explain what minstrel shows were to the governor, how white people dressed in blackface to mock African Americans “and exaggerated their characteristics and mannerisms.”
“And the main point that this person told me is that at the end of the day, the white person — just as I was the white person that dressed up as an African American dancer — at the end of the day we can take that makeup off and go back to being white,” Northam said as if he didn’t know this before.
The governor also told the Post that he has been reading Alex Haley’s Roots and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s influential Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.” Northam said he plans to launch a “reconciliation tour” around the state to discuss race, although he offered no details. He also said he would work to take down statues and monuments “that provoke this type of hatred and bigotry,” saying they belong in museums, although he also defended a painting of a former Virginia governor who advocated for slavery that still hangs in the governor’s mansion.
In the interview, Northam exposes his astounding ignorance of racist acts, especially for someone who ran and holds office in a state like Virginia. It seems implausible that a well-educated white man would have such ignorant views on race in 2019, and it’s frankly inexcusable. If Northam wants to read Roots and Coates, he is free to do so, but he should not do it on the public’s dime.