Northam’s racist photo and the conversation about race we need to have

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, accompanied by his wife Pamela Northam announces he will not resign during a news conference Richmond, Virginia, U.S. February 2, 2019. REUTERS/ Jay Paul - RC1D96C8E7D0

Last week, it was revealed that the 1984 medical school yearbook page of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam contained a photo of someone in blackface standing next to someone in a KKK outfit. Governor Northam is now contending with virtually unanimous calls for his resignation. For a variety of reasons, Republicans and Democrats alike have strongly urged him to resign. The mainstream media has focused on the disappointment and disgust of many who know or work with Governor Northam and on his downward spiral of explanations.

While any engagement with blackface (either in a photo or on the dance floor or elsewhere) is clearly despicable and inappropriate, the frenzy of coverage has largely focused on the long arc of Governor Northam’s decision about whether he should resign or remain in office. While it is a sad moment for Virginia and obviously the end of Northam’s political career, we should be taking this opportunity to have a very different conversation.

The Northam incident is as much about political lapses in the U.S. as it is about personal values and misjudgments. Have we noticed that as late as 1984, it seemed perfectly acceptable to the Eastern Virginia Medical College yearbook staff to include the racist photo? Aren’t medical colleges supposed to be training students to treat the health concerns of their fellow human beings? And wouldn’t discharging the responsibilities of a medical doctor require that the medical practitioner recognize all of his patients as fellow human beings? It is difficult to understand how a quality medical practitioner could emerge from an environment where the inclusion of a blackface photo in the medical school yearbook seemed unremarkable.

How did we arrive at a place where someone who was managing the production of the 1984 yearbook didn’t bother to question the inclusion of the photograph? That such a photo could even have been taken in 1984 says a lot about how portions of the South have been allowed to maintain their own parallel universe on race relations even after a series of legal judgments against a variety of explicitly discriminatory behaviors.

While primary and secondary school students in the former Union states have been taught that the Civil War was a war about the continuation of slavery, students in the former Confederate States have been taught that the Civil War was about states’ rights. We allowed that lie to be perpetuated.

As we are now painfully aware, during the Jim Crow era, we also allowed Southern leaders to erect statues and monuments that honored the Confederacy. It has only been in the last few years that we have started to have national and local conversations about why these statues are still gracing public spaces.

We have overlooked the fact that many Southern states have abandoned the substance of Brown v. the Board of Education, allowing myriad bypasses, such as creating charter schools or ever smaller school districts to remain in place during decades of litigation.

And as the 2018 mid-term elections highlighted, we have let voter suppression persist in some of our Southern states.

The scale of the challenge is best comprehended when we consider that just prior to the scandal the governor now finds himself in, the Virginia state senate paid tribute to Robert E. Lee. In 2019!

In sum, we have allowed our Southern states to perpetuate a parallel universe that has, at its core, the very same values that undergirded slavery. Blackface stems from that ugly history. It is a denigration of African Americans that questions their intelligence, their judgement, their humanity. It is the same foundation that gave rise to lynching, the raping of African-American women and girls by white masters, racial profiling, and policies that led to redlining and to discrimination in the 1935 Social Security Act. It also led to the development of a terrorist organization, the Klan, to carry out some of those heinous acts then, only to be glorified decades later.

We should be using this moment to have a national conversation about why we have allowed this parallel universe to exist. We should be spending less time discussing the personal foibles of a governor who, at the very least, has not kept up with the current zeitgeist. Instead, we should be spending more time talking about the fact that although there have been many legal and political victories that have made explicitly racist policies more difficult to pursue, the reality of racism and its institutional support continues to exist in many Southern states.

That has happened not in spite of us, but because we let it happen.