Northam’s Controversial Past, Poor Judgment Inexcusable in Public Service

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s association with a racist yearbook image and his dismal response to its discovery demonstrate that he is unfit to be governor.

Northam, a Democrat, refused to resign after a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced, featuring him in either blackface or a Ku Klux Klan outfit. While Northam initially confirmed his appearance in the image and issued an apology, he later changed his story. Despite claiming that he had sported blackface on at least one occasion, he then insisted that neither of the people in the yearbook picture was him. Additionally, CBS later uncovered a yearbook page from the Virginia Military Institute in which Northam’s photograph is captioned with a racial slur; he downplayed this connection by assuring that only a small number of people referred to him by this racist nickname, hardly an acceptable justification. Northam’s statements regarding the controversy, whether true or not, seem more like attempts to gaslight the public about his past than truthful denials or nuanced explanations. His disorganized handling of the situation does not bode well for his management abilities and calls into question his effectiveness as the head of a state government.

In the aftermath of the photo’s surfacing, virtually the entire political establishment, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Donald J. Trump and both of Virginia’s Democratic U.S. Senators have called for Northam to step down. With each passing day that Northam remains in office, his public perception deteriorates as he appears increasingly stubborn, insolent and unapologetic. With what little support remains for the governor quickly fading, resignation seems to be not only a moral imperative, but also a public relations necessity.

It goes without saying that people can change their views on sensitive issues of race and gender; we’re all human and no one’s ideology is forever static. However, Virginians were not aware of Northam’s racist past when they elected him to be the head of their state government just 15 months ago. They were thus unable to accurately gauge his character in the Democratic primary or the general election. Furthermore, Northam’s confusing and inconsistent handling of the situation has shown him to be untruthful and uncaring, clearly more interested in keeping his office than making a genuine effort towards righting his wrongs.

Democrats must make it abundantly clear that this type of behavior will not be tolerated within their party. By the same token, Republicans disgusted by Northam must more seriously address concerns of racism within their own party, including allegations of racist housing discrimination by Trump and his father in the 1970s. Republicans are now presented that the opportunity to oust a Democratic governor of a swing state; this is merely a political calculation on their part. Southern GOP politicians with a newfound commitment to racial justice will have to answer for 40 years of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which pitted poor Southern whites against black people for electoral gain. Frankly, the notion that Republican lawmakers support Northam’s resignation, out of principled disdain for racism, is laughable.

The preservation of a public servant’s career, regardless of their political affiliation, should always take a backseat to the protection of equality and diversity. Northam should resign from his position and mend the divisions of trust that these events opened up. We as a country must continue to seriously address issues that plague our tense racial climate, whenever necessary.

Zach Ball (21C) is from Griffin, Ga.