Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gave his first interview to the Washington Post since it was revealed last week that his medical school yearbook entry contained a photo of two men dressed in blackface and Klan robes, after which Northam apologized, then gave a press conference in which he denied being either person in the photo but admitted to wearing black another time. Northam has been called on to step down by just about every Democrat in America, but is pledging to remain in office to learn from his “mistakes” and pursue racial equity.
Some of the details in the Post are similar to those dropped in a BuzzFeed story on Friday, such as Northam being assigned a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a couple of chapters of Alex Haley’s Roots as homework instead of, you know, working on an exit strategy that culminates in someone who hasn’t been accused of multiple sexual assaults or admitted to wearing blackface ending up as Virginia’s governor.
The interview, which the Post said was restricted to 30 minutes and mandated that no audio or transcript would be released, did reveal that Northam is planning something called a “reconciliation tour” of his state, and featured Northam’s rumination on white privilege as a result of the conversations he’s had over the past week:
Another black lawmaker, who he also declined to name, made a powerful point about white privilege, Northam said: That a white person who makes a mistake gets a second chance, while a black person might not. “That really helped put things in perspective for me to better understand why someone of white privilege has the opportunities that they have when an African American...doesn’t,” he said.
I suspect that was not the result that the unnamed lawmaker was going for here.
The most illustrative part of the interview, however, was this, which shows that for all the conversations Northam has had and writings on racism he’s reading and thoughts about privilege he’s pondered over the past eight days, he still very much does not get it:
Immediately following the 2017 violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Northam suggested that Confederate monuments be moved from public property to museums. But later, Northam said the matter should be left to each locality.
On Saturday he seemed to say he was willing to use his authority as governor to push the issue, if the monuments still prove provocative.
“I will take a harder line,” Northam said. “If there are statues, if there monuments out there that provoke this type of hatred and bigotry, they need to be in museums.”
And then, this (emphasis mine):
But earlier in the interview, Northam had also pointed out a portrait in the parlor of Henry Wise, who served as governor from 1856-60 and is the only other Virginia governor besides Northam to hail from the Eastern Shore. When it was pointed out that Wise was a staunch Confederate who defended slavery, Northam grimaced.
Should that portrait come down? “Well, I think that’s an important part of history, and we need to tell all history,” Northam said. “We have good history in Virginia... and we have history that’s not good and I don’t think we can shy away from any of it. We must tell it all, we must put it in perspective.”
This is Virginia. The history of the Civil War is all over the eastern half of the United States, but in Virginia, it’s everywhere. No one is going to forget the Confederacy existed if the monuments and portraits to the leaders of the Antebellum South are removed, or their names are taken off of the buildings and streets that honor them.
Why the fuck should anyone expect Ralph Northam to actually follow through with tearing down Confederate monuments when he cowers when asked if the portrait of a pre-Civil War governor who defended slavery should come down? Furthermore, why should anyone trust Northam to actively confront “ongoing inequities to access to things like education, health care, mortgages, capital, entrepreneurship,” as he told the Post he would, when he’s unable to take down one damn picture in the governor’s mansion that no one will miss?
If Northam really wants to confront his privilege and reduce racial inequities, there’s only one way forward: resigning and ensuring that his successor is someone who will pursue an agenda of breaking down institutional racism. Until he does that, everything he does should be seen for exactly what it is: a purely cynical attempt to save his career and his legacy.