Ralph Northam, the current Democratic governor of Virginia, is currently facing demands for his resignation in response to a racist photograph from his medical school years that was included on his yearbook page. In his page from the Eastern Virginia Medical School’s 1984 yearbook, reporters have identified a photograph that depicts a young man in blackface and another dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam immediately issued an apology, admitting that he was one of the individuals in the yearbook before recanting his statement. Despite his statement on Friday, Northam now denies that either of the individuals in the yearbook is him, but does admit that he apparently did once darken his face for a Michael Jackson impersonation contest in 1984. The incident has resulted in nationwide calls for his resignation from the likes of fellow Democrats such as Joe Biden and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which Northam has responded to swiftly by saying that he would continue to serve the state of Virginia despite his past actions.
As a moderate Democrat in a state that is characterized by a deep partisan divisions, Governor Northam has generally supported liberal causes, from backing reproductive rights to advocating for more stringent gun control policies. Regardless of party lines and his voting record, Northam’s actions are yet another instance in the long legacy of racism in the United States. Coincidentally, Duke alum Justin Fairfax would become Northam’s successor if he ultimately does step down from the governorship. Fairfax made headlines last month when he was the lone state official to sit out during Virginia’s annual tribute to Robert E. Lee. He later commented that it was disrespectful to partake in the ceremony given Lee’s connection to the Confederacy and the legacy of institutional racism in the United States post-slavery.
Unfortunately, scandals of this nature will undoubtedly happen again whether it be a public official or a celebrity of some sort. If we look back at any yearbook, we are bound to find fault with a photo done in poor taste or something outright abhorrent. A page from the 1956 Chanticleer, for instance, contains a photograph of merry white Duke students dressed in yellow-face at an “Oriental”-themed frat party—nearly fifty years before 2013’s “Asia Prime” incident.
As a society we are left to grapple with the aftermath of numerous scandals involving race and personal ethics which call into question the merits of call-out culture. We must ask ourselves how much time is necessary before one ought to step back from the spotlight, and what exactly must be done by the transgressor to ensure that the harm caused is repaired. Northam was an adult man in medical school when he decided to dress up and appear in the photo, which he originally said he was in. Although a commonly accepted comedic practice from the 1850s to the 1950s, blackface has since come to widely be seen as a cultural practice that is outright racist. If Northam's misdeeds were revealed while he was practicing medicine, it might be tempting to say that he should simply be ousted from his position, but that may not be the best course of action when trying to address a history that is as storied and controversial as the United States.
It is reassuring that the American people from all walks of life have issued calls for Northam’s resignation. One need only go back several decades to find individuals who committed egregious crimes and were let off the hook, either by a lack of accountability of our political institutions or due to the human tendency to immortalize the dead and focus on the positive aspects of a public figure's life. President John F. Kennedy sexually harassed numerous women while Senator Ted Kennedy was driving the car in an accident that resulted in his secretary dead in a lake—both Kennedy brothers received relative wrist-slaps for their offenses. Prominent white men getting away with killing, sexual assault and racism are not anomalies in our current political system; they make up the legacy that the United States has struggled to address for centuries.
If Ralph Northam is in the business of making amends in response to past racism, he should step down and let Fairfax occupy the Executive Mansion in Richmond. First and foremost, elected officials are supposed to represent their constituents in good faith to the best of their ability. If at any point, they lose the confidence of the people they serve, they have a responsibility to do what is right: to abdicate authority.
This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff.
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