I’ve never met Ralph Northam, the embattled governor of Virginia, but we have several important things in common.
We’re both Virginians, with deep family roots in the state’s history. We’re of roughly the same age. We’re both from families of similar education level and social status. And we’re both white.
This last fact is not insignificant.
As you may know, Northam came under pressure to resign a little over a week ago when a conservative news site dug up his page in his yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School, which he attended in the early 1980s, a page that included a photo of two people in costume – one in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.
That was bad enough, but his subsequent handling of the crisis raised real doubts about his honesty and judgment. At first he apologized for having appeared in such a crude photo. Then the next day, he retracted his apology, saying he didn’t believe that he was either of the people in the picture.
In the course of a disastrous press conference, he prevaricated, minimized, and then admitted that, even if it wasn’t him in that photo, he had appeared in blackface at least one time, when he performed as Michael Jackson in a talent show.
Making matters worse, someone dug into his undergraduate yearbook, from Virginia Military Institute, and discovered that his nickname was listed as “Coonman,” a possible reference to a derogatory term for African-Americans. Northam was unable to explain that listing – he denied ever using that nickname and said it was bestowed on him by two older students, for reasons he did not know.
Within two or three days, pretty much the only person who didn’t think Northam should resign was Northam himself.
It’s not the first time that race has tripped up a Virginia governor. Former Gov. George Allen dashed his own presidential hopes in 2006 by publicly referring to an Indian-descended man as “Macacca,” a term that suggested he was calling the man a monkey. Allen had earlier come under fire for his own college yearbook, from the University of Virginia (which I attended about 10 years after him), displaying him with various versions of the Confederate battle flag.
I’ve watched Northam’s struggles with considerable discomfort. It’s not that you’d find any such racist buffoonery in my background – because, as we say in the South, I was brought up better than that.
Rather it is a shocking reminder at just how common and unremarkable that kind of thing was in the world that I and Ralph Northam (and George Allen not too far before us) grew up in.
Like many white Southern youth, I was brought up with the stories of the Lost Cause, the valiant Southern resistance to Northern oppression. We all knew where our relatives fought and died, and could talk knowledgeably about the battles and leaders of the war. Even at the college level, there were history professors who taught us that the Civil War was “not about slavery.”
When I was in high school, we didn’t think twice about seeing someone with a T-shirt or belt buckle featuring the Confederate battle flag. Racist jokes and slurs, while hardly common in the 1980s, didn’t elicit the kind of shock or anger they would today.
Only gradually did it dawn on me that there was another side to this story. The mythology that we were taught – at home, in school, and in the broader culture – was a distinctly white one, with no room for the feelings or experiences of the African Americans who lived alongside of us.
The “Cause” that was “Lost” was the preservation of slavery. The war was all about slavery. It is not impossible that there could have been a civil war of some kind even without slavery, but it would have not been fought when and how it was without slavery as the central issue.
The continual talk about that war and the display of symbols like the battle flag were designed to exclude and minimize African Americans, whether any of us personally meant them ill or not.
It was driven home to me in a profound way in the late 1990s, when I was covering the emotional battle over the display of the Confederate battle flag atop the state capitol in South Carolina. Supporters argued that it was simply a nod to the history of the state and the bravery of the soldiers who answered the call, whether they supported slavery or not. The flag supporters’ slogan was “Heritage not hate.”
One day, while reporting on a pro-flag rally at the capitol, I looked out on a sea of people, many of them waving battle flags or wearing Confederate-style hats.
It was a stirring sight, and eventually the crowd broke into a rousing rendition of “Bonnie Blue Flag,” a favorite song of the Confederacy that was familiar to many Southerners even a century and a quarter later.
And yet it was also a shocking sight. That sea of faces was all white. I understood viscerally, for the first time, what African Americans were talking about when they said the battle flag is a painful, even frightening, reminder of repression—and their continued exclusion from the broader culture.
Most of the white people in that crowd were probably sincere when they said they were not waving the banner in an explicit effort to signal hate, but the heritage they were celebrating was exclusively their heritage — white heritage, white mythology — ignoring the very different heritage that African Americans carry with them.
Looking back at those photos in Northam’s yearbook fills me with regret. Not regret for anything I did specifically, but regret for not understanding the meaning of the white-dominated culture I was part of. Regret for not speaking up to counter the casual racism that still abounded when I was young. Regret for being so slow to recognize how poisonous that culture was for our African American friends, colleagues and neighbors.
Northam’s scandal shows clearly that Southerners like us, and probably all Americans, need to come to terms with the past and our complicity in it.