A Democrat’s Defense of Ralph Northam

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A Democrat’s Defense of Ralph Northam

Photo: Republican Governors Association

Photo: Republican Governors Association

Photo: Republican Governors Association

Photo: Republican Governors Association

Nicholas Favale, Staff Writer

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Last week I was driving home from Richmond through Manchester. As I approached the James River, I was excited because this was a route I’ve rarely taken, and I knew that there was a pretty view of the waterfront coming up. I looked to my left and saw the Virginia War Memorial sitting over the river, I took in the bright sky, I noticed the beautiful rushing water below. It gave me a tingling sensation of pride, both in my city, state, and country. (Maybe I’m just sentimental like that.) Then I turned to my right, to see the other side. Instead of being greeted with another scenic view, my eyes instantly went to a little green road sign. My pride faded away immediately. I was driving on “Robert E. Lee Bridge.” Suddenly I was yanked from my moment of serenity, and slapped in the face with a reminder of one of the ugliest points of history for our city, state, and country.

I think this moment is the perfect analogy for how Virginia Democrats have felt the past few weeks. One day we were happy that our state was finally turning more Democratic, we flipped the 7th District, we’ve gone blue the past ten years for the president, both our senators are Dems, etc. There was a lot to be proud of. Then, out of nowhere, Ralph Northam’s yearbook photos were leaked, depicting a man in black face and another in KKK robes, pulling us all back to a nasty, hateful period of history. Nobody could have imagined the political nightmare that followed. The press conference was a disaster, people all over the country called for his resignation, and Justin Fairfax allegedly committed sexual assault. And wait, Mark Herring also put on blackface. In the days since, I have heard a lot of things about the issue that I feel are misguided, which I want to address.

First off, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Herring, or maybe even Northam, wore “blackface.” That is a loaded term with a complicated history, that I think people have been misconstruing and over-simplifying. Blackface is more than just darkening your face with makeup, it refers to the intended mockery of African-American people in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. A quick google search of “blackface” illustrates this. White people would caricature African-Americans with dark, black face paint, leaving their lips white, wear white gloves, and act to entertain their audience in minstrel shows. It was clearly racist and offensive. We don’t know a whole lot about either Herring’s or Northam’s case, but from what we do, I suspect Herring did nothing of the sort. All he is guilty of is wearing makeup at a costume party 30 years ago in an effort to appear more like a rapper he listened to. People can choose to take offense at this, but I personally find it no worse than putting makeup on to look like a zombie. There is no evidence to suggest that his intent was to mock the rapper or black culture, so assuming that is unfair. But for  Northam, the issue is a little more complicated. His yearbook photo looks like it actually does have a man wearing blackface in it, but we don’t know for sure who it is. At worst, he was one of the two, at best, he was still probably close friends with these people. However, this leads me to my next point.

Calling Ralph Northam or Mark Herring a racist is not a correct assessment. Let’s assume that Northam was the one in blackface (or KKK robes). Is there anything else over his entire career that suggests hateful or negative feelings towards black people? People have compared this to a certain Bret Kavanaugh’s sticky situation, but it’s not a good comparison. Kavanaugh had a woman accuse him of sexual assault. This called his youth into question, and, after looking at his yearbook, we saw some things that would corroborate the allegations. Here, we only have a photo, nothing more. I would call it offensive, insensitive, and plain stupid, but not definitive proof that Northam is a racist. On the contrary, his actions as a politician show how he fought for minorities and liberal values. His expansion of Medicaid and promotion of free community college both disproportionately benefit minorities. We don’t know what was going on in his head 30 years ago, but given everything he has done since, I would, at the very least, say he is not a racist anymore.

I’ve heard the argument over and over that “this was 1984, not 1964! They should’ve known better!” While it’s true that huge strides were made in civil rights from the 60’s to the 80’s, let’s not forget something. This is Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. You can’t go five minutes through the city without crossing over a Robert E Lee bridge, driving around J.E.B. Stuart’s traffic circle, or passing the Daughters of the Confederacy everytime you want to look at some art. Beyond Richmond, we watched Nazis march through Charlottesville in 2017, the town that a lot of us will be going to college in next year. How can we pretend that Virginia was some super-liberalized utopia in the 80’s, where everyone was super sensitive of race, when we still memorialize and glorify the people that fought for slavery? In the year 1984, the year Northam graduated from medical school, the Commonwealth of Virginia merged the new Federal holiday of Martin Luther King Jr Day with another holiday that had been celebrated around the same time of year, creating Lee-Jackson-King Day. LEE-JACKSON-KING DAY. 1984.

So, why I am focusing so heavily on the Confederacy when the issue at hand is blackface? Because they are two sides of the same coin. They are remnants of the old South, in all its slave-loving and blatantly racist glory. We’ve picked and chosen which manifestations we want to hold our politicians accountable for, but they represent the same thing. People today think our society has moved on, and think we are so much better than we were a short few decades ago, yet still the old south remains alive and well, as I showed above. I would have no problem whatsoever if we replaced every single monument of Lee with one of Grant, or renamed every road for Jeff Davis in favor of Lincoln. I don’t have any empathy for statues or streets. In the past few weeks, however, we have applied the same cold feelings to a man. People are not like statues, they can change quite a bit in thirty years. If there is anything that changes more than people, it is politics. What is considered gross and unacceptable today may have been fine with people thirty years ago. That doesn’t make it anymore right, but it means that we can’t hold people’s actions from decades ago to our current political standards.

We have turned Virginia into the laughing stock of the nation. National news, late night shows, newspapers, all playing off of Virginia’s political misfortune. What should have been a relatively easy issue to learn and move on from has turned into a catastrophe that will likely plague the governorship for the next three years, if Northam doesn’t resign like he says he won’t. The fact of the matter is that pressuring him out of office will change nothing. Good ol’ Robert E. Lee will still be sitting there on his horse when you drive on monument, and you can always take a trip down 95 to see the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia proudly waving. Not a single slave, colored soldier who died fighting for the Union, or black person who was lynched by the KKK, will be avenged. But if Democrats really want to remove a governor that will likely do everything he can to fight for equality, if at the very least to just prove himself, then fine. They would only usher Republicans into the upper echelons of government, playing into the hands of the far-right media website founded by Breitbart employees who first published the pictures. The legacy of racism and hatred will live on, only this time, with a governor who is probably less likely to fight as harshly against it in office.

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