Ralph Northam Should Resign

At some point today Virginia Governor Ralph Northam will hold a press conference. It should be the last of his career in Democratic politics.

The Virginian-Pilot obtained photos, released on Friday, from Northam’s medical school yearbook showing vile racism in Northam’s entry, including a young white man in blackface standing next to another in Ku Klux Klan robes. One of Northam’s nicknames is listed as “Coonman”–in context almost certainly a reference to a gross racial slur. Northam has admitted to being shown in the photographs, but it’s still not clear if he’s the one in blackface or the Klan robes. It doesn’t really matter.

Northam apologized on a video Friday evening. The apology seemed in earnest, but it’s far too little too late.

A number of incidents over the last few years have sparked a conversation about whether awful behavior during one’s youth should be held against that person for the rest of their life. It’s a complex conversation: should racist white boys get second chances that Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin never got? If so, why? If not, how do we move forward as a society without further radicalizing those white boys? And so on.

But this conversation does not apply to Northam. His case is inexcusable on any account.

First, Northam didn’t play racist dress-up back in the 1940s or 1950s. This was in 1984By 1984, that sort of behavior was far beyond the pale even in the South.

Second, Northam wasn’t a high school kid playing out his parents’ abhorrent views before he broadened his horizons. He was a 25-year-old medical school student–more than old enough and responsible to know better.

Third, Northam kept this behavior a secret for his whole political career. It’s arguable that someone with a checkered past of racist behavior could make a career in Democratic politics, but the first step on that path involves contrition and a narrative of transformation. Northam chose secrecy, which means that nothing he says about his current views can be trusted because he’s only discussed them when forced to under scandal. It is especially infuriating that Northam chose to engage in a hard-fought primary campaign against a well-liked progressive, Congressman Tom Perriello, knowing full well that these skeletons lurked in his closet and could have been exposed in a general election campaign.

Fourth, and most importantly, no matter what sort of opportunities for redemption society owes to men like Northam, we are under no obligation to let them serve in the most exalted positions of power. There are many others–including and especially women, people of color, and other minorities who have spent their lives in oppressive conditions rather than as secret oppressors–who deserve the chance to lead.

Fortunately, just one such excellent person is waiting in the wings: Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. This is not a situation in which a fatally flawed candidate must retain their seat lest a worse option take his place. Fairfax is African-American, competent, charismatic, and effective, beloved by both the progressive and establishment wings of the Democratic Party. By most accounts, he would make a tremendous governor.

It’s time for Northam to step down and do his soul-searching somewhere other than the governor’s mansion.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.