Nearly four decades after smearing his face with shoe polish and doing a blackface impersonation of Michael Jackson, Virginia governor Ralph Northam says he wants to be a beacon of racial reconciliation. To that end, advisers tell BuzzFeed News, Northam has embarked on a survey course in wokeness: boning up on the horrors of U.S. slavery via Alex Haley’s Roots; studying the legacy of American racism through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”; watching the heroic cinematic portraiture of the Ku Klux Klan in "Birth of a Nation." (A film, it should be noted, that features an astounding amount of blackface.) Northam’s apology-slash-rebranding campaign is also slated to feature a policy agenda focused on racial equity, putting desperately needed resources into public transportation, affordable housing and Virginia’s historically black colleges.
Also supposedly on Northam’s to-do list? Finally calling for the removal of Virginia’s many racist statues and monuments glorifying the Confederacy, a nation founded specifically to ensure the preservation of black chattel slavery. According to BuzzFeed, “a source close to the governor said Northam is telling people privately that if the commonwealth’s legislature puts a bill on his desk that provides the authority to bring down Confederate statues that he would sign it.”
Like the rest of his all-racial-equality-all-the-time platform, this sits somewhere between a shift and a pivot for Northam. The article notes that while stumping for the governorship, Northam was vocal about the need for Virginia’s Confederate markers to come down, but “later softened his position, saying what should be done with the statues should be left up to localities.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch makes particular note of the fact that in “August 2017, following the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Northam — then the Democratic nominee for governor — said in a statement that Confederate statues ‘should be taken down and moved into museums.’ He has not pursued that policy as governor.”
In the days since the story broke about that racist photo on Northam’s medical school yearbook page, the governor has since re-backtracked to his original position. In a Washington Post interview published Saturday, Northam told the paper he will be more firm in his opposition to racist Confederate markers. “If there are statues, if there are monuments out there that provoke this type of hatred and bigotry,” Northam said, “they need to be in museums.”
Virginia, once the cradle of the Confederacy, has more Confederate monuments than any other state. As historians have noted, those markers went up not in the years immediately following the South’s Civil War defeat but decades later, during the same period that Virginia’s white politicians were taking away black voting rights, instituting Jim Crow segregation, and reestablishing slavery in all but name. The state’s memorials to the Confederacy made visible a legal, social and political campaign of white terror. That historical truth on its own should make it easy to remove Confederate monuments and place them in settings where they can be properly contextualized. But policy is almost never enacted because of morality.
Northam was well aware of the history of his state’s Confederate statuary a few weeks ago in January, when state Democrats proposed — but did little to propel — a bill that would overturn a Virginia law that forbids Confederate monuments from being removed. That bill quickly died in subcommittee, voted down 2-6 by neo-Confederate GOP lawmakers (and a lone Democrat). At that time, Northam neither promoted the bill publicly, spoke on its behalf nor threw his support behind the legislation.
That craven silence is more proof that cynical self-preservation is the motivating factor behind Northam’s sudden commitment to righting racial wrongs that have long needed urgent attention. Black Virginians know this, just like they know the ugly political realities — the threat of a Republican takeover, of centuries of racist policymaking in the state, the near nonexistence of good-faith politicking — that make Northam’s remaining in office potentially far better than his resignation. The possibility of having a lawmaker finally address even a portion of the black community’s needs supersedes the question of whether Northam is in it for himself or not.
Only time will tell if Northam will follow through on so many promises borne out of political desperation. In the coming weeks and months, one of the easiest anti-racist moves Northam could make is to keep loudly calling for Virginia’s Confederate monuments to be removed. While he’s at it, he should challenge Virginia Republicans calling for his removal — and also using feigned anti-racist conviction for political ends — to bring that sentiment to the fight against Confederate monuments. With so much sudden and convenient anti-racist conviction among Virginia’s political class, taking down overt symbols of white supremacy is low-hanging legislative fruit.