A boyhood faux pas should not end a governor’s career

There are plenty of reasons to ask for Northam’s resignation. A yearbook photo is not one of them.



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

Brian Brooks, Freelance Writer

A photo was released this week purporting to show beleaguered Gov. Ralph Northam in blackface. The photo was taken from the governor’s 1984 yearbook and shows two figures, one of whom is a white man wearing blackface, the other of whom is a person dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Although Northam now denies being in the photos, the fact that they were a part of his yearbook page is deeply troubling. The pictures were disgusting, offensive and horrifying. They were also taken at least 30 years ago.

Given the racially and politically polarized nature of our country, Gov. Northam was immediately condemned. Amid their various squabbles and from their deeply entrenched positions, both major political parties came together to agree that Northam is a horrible racist who should have never become governor of Virginia. With both parties in rare agreement about something, perhaps Northam should, as Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James put it, “step down and let the healing begin.” Although our knee-jerk reaction to a story like this is to clean house, that does not mean that we should. Just because something is bipartisan does not mean it should be blindly accepted.


Republicans and Democrats each have their own reasons for wanting Northam out. For their part, Republicans wanted the cheap political points that dethroning a visible Democratic governor would give them. Although they were just as horrified as any at the racist caricature, the GOP is the party least likely to crucify someone over a terrible photo-op taken in the previous millennium. It was the governor’s recent barbaric comments on infanticide that compelled a pro-life former classmate to publish the photos.

Democrats, anxious to prove that theirs was the party of racial sensitivity, did not think twice about requesting the governor’s resignation. Of course, it is worth pointing out that the lieutenant governor, the man who would succeed Northam, is also a Democrat. The Virginia governorship is a low-stakes game for Democrats, so they see no problem with improving their brand even if it means tearing down a sitting governor in their own party.

At no time during this game of political chess did anyone question the wisdom of forcing a resignation from a man whose three-decades-old yearbook happened to have a racist photo in it. More likely than not, the photo was a despicable joke. Even if the photo was a mean-spirited attack on African-Americans, the country seems to have a disturbing lack of interest in the 35 years Northam has had to atone for his sins. If he really is the racist the photo suggests, how have his policies as Virginia’s top statesman been toward ethnic minorities? It is difficult to pose this question, because it requires escaping the gravity of a visual image and digging into the complex actions a human being has taken in the 21st century. In order to determine whether a politician should resign, activists should dig into his most recent sins. When it comes to infanticide-condoning Gov. Northam, he has no shortage of them.


When it comes to racism, Democrats have forgiven a lot less. Robert Byrd, a senator from West Virginia, was a card-carrying Klansman. Byrd held his Democratic seat for 51 years, giving him the longest tenure in the history of the U.S. Senate, where he served as the legislative body’s president pro tempore until his death in 2010. At his funeral, former President Bill Clinton used his eulogy to absolve him of his sins, calling him a “country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia. He was trying to get elected. And maybe he did something he shouldn’t have done, and he spent the rest of his life making it up. And that’s what a good person does. There are no perfect people. There certainly are no perfect politicians.”

Ralph Northam is by no means a perfect politician—he has been a terrible governor for Virginia. He has a horrible record on border safety, he demagogues his opponents and his opinions on abortion and infanticide are like something out of a dystopian hellscape. These are substantive problems with the Northam administration. The governor has made serious mistakes during his time in office and there are plenty of reasons he should resign. An offensive photo he may have taken in 1984 is not one of them.

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