Northam reveals the depths of white-male privilege in defiant stand
Almost immediately after the news broke that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) featured a racist photo on his personal page in a 1984 medical school yearbook, calls came for him to step down and let Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) lead the Commonwealth.
As this tragically serious a political situation unfolds, with almost certain twists and curves to come, one overriding fact exists clearly and unambiguously: Northam, a product of Virginia’s good-old-boy, Southern Democratic machine politics, couldn’t bring himself to easily pass the power and authority of his office to a black man.
At his inauguration last year, Fairfax kept in the pocket of his coat a copy of the manumission document that freed his great-great-great-grandfather from slavery. https://t.co/voGJY0woXD
— Matea Gold (@mateagold) February 2, 2019
So, in an act of political chutzpah that defies all logic and credibility, Northam conducted a news conference Saturday afternoon that could only be described as surreal.
With his wife Pam standing next to him, Northam attempted to explain that it wasn’t him in that repugnant photo and, therefore, he would not resign as governor. But, he acknowledged having worn blackface makeup in another, seemingly (to him) less offensive context — to win a 1984 talent show.
Just as he admittedly attempted to portray a blackface Michael Jackson in the talent show, Northam has played the role of a New South progressive and used that ephemera to catapult himself to public notice and power.
In the former case, Northam says he won a talent show in San Antonio, Texas, wearing black shoe polish on his face and with a single gloved hand, in a moonwalking exhibition. In the latter, he won the governor’s mansion pretending to be a humble, country doctor who is honest and caring about the welfare of Virginians.
Both were lies, convenient masquerades to boost his ego and acquire selfish goals. Northam’s refusal to yield to the near-universal calls for him to resign is his ultimate act of white-male privilege.
After admitting and apologizing on Friday for appearing as one of the two figures in the photo — either in blackface or wearing a KKK robe — Northam spent a restless night pondering his predicament. He had changed course by Saturday afternoon, denying what is obvious to anyone paying attention.
“I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo,” Northam said during an hour-long news conference in which he chose to fight to save his office. “This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam.”
It was a sorry political scene that called to mind that old Richard Pryor joke that asks: “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your lying eyes?”
Northam would have all of Virginia and the nation question which version of the truth he was actually telling? Such is the power of white-male privilege, because nearly no one else could dare such a brazen and obvious equivocation, standing in opposition to nearly every rational call for him to move aside and for Fairfax to take his place.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Gov. Ralph Northam: “Once that picture with the blackface and the klansman came out, there is no way you can continue be the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” #CNNSOTU https://t.co/utsr7DiuWC pic.twitter.com/GuHK7KrRhp
— CNN (@CNN) February 3, 2019
The demands that Northam resign began predictably with Virginia’s conservative GOP leaders, but escalated to include Democrats in the state’s legislature, progressive groups that had supported Northam and candidates for his party’s 2020 presidential nomination. As word of the photos spread from Richmond to across the United States, Northam saw his governing authority in Virginia wither to dust.
The Commonwealth’s leading Democrats — Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, Attorney General Mark Herring and former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder — condemned the photo in separate statements and eventually called upon Northam to resign.
Notably, Kaine, Warner, and Scott issued a remarkable joint statement Saturday night demanding a change at the governor’s mansion.
Northam is a product of a bygone era, a rural Southern politician from a long-discredited generation who now want Virginians and the nation to believe in his window-dressing of 21st-century progressivism. It won’t work. Sooner or later, Northam’s blackface lies will outrun his ability to cling to power.
Hopefully, sooner rather than later, Northam will be forced understand that he can no longer govern when all the political forces are arrayed against him. At that moment, he will have no other option than to resign. Then, Fairfax will be come the Commonwealth’s governor, delivering one more blow against the white supremacist power structure that for so long has defined Virginia.