The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. Gov. Ralph Northam says he wants to focus rest of his term on racial equity

A cascade of scandals rocked the Democratic Party in Virginia in 2019 after a racist photo was discovered on Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page. (Video: Lee Powell, Patrick Martin, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam, in his first interview since a racist photo from his medical school yearbook came to light a week ago, promised to pursue racial reconciliation as he defended his vow to stay in office despite widespread calls for his resignation.

Northam (D), 59, said he wants to spend the remaining three years of his term trying to ensure that black Virginians have the same opportunities as whites.

Northam seemed chastened and subdued as he described a week of grappling with what “white privilege” means, with the reality of African American history, and with the personal failing of growing up after desegregation and the civil rights era while somehow not realizing that blackface is offensive.

“It’s been a horrific week for Virginia. A lot of individuals across Virginia have been hurt,” Northam said Saturday morning, seated in the formal front parlor of the 1813 Executive Mansion. Northam’s office restricted the interview to 30 minutes and stipulated that neither the audio nor a full transcript of the interview be released. Otherwise, there were no limitations on what could be asked or published.

He said he is monitoring the situation involving Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), who is denying two sexual assault allegations, but that he has not made any decisions about who he might appoint as a replacement if Fairfax heeded calls to resign.

Calls mount for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax to resign after sex assault claims

“It must take tremendous courage for women to step forward and talk about being the victim of sexual assault,” Northam said. “These allegations are horrific, they need to be taken very seriously. Lieutenant Governor Fairfax has suggested and called for an investigation. I strongly support that.”

Francis L. Counselman, a former medical school classmate of Ralph Northam, reacted Feb. 6 to the yearbook photo controversy plaguing the Virginia governor. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

The governor still contends that he is not in the photograph of one person in blackface and another in KKK robes but could not say how it wound up on his yearbook page, nor why he initially took responsibility for it, other than to say that he was “shocked” when he first saw it on an iPhone the afternoon of Feb. 1.

“This isn’t me”: Northam’s yearbook denial shocks staff

“I overreacted,” he said, by putting out a statement taking blame for the picture. “If I had it to do over I would step back and take a deep breath.”

He said that an “independent investigation” being conducted by Eastern Virginia Medical School is aimed at clearing up the facts around it.

Former Virginia Attorney General Richard Cullen, who has been engaged by the medical school to lead a team from the law firm McGuireWoods to conduct the investigation, has said that one of their goals will be to determine who is depicted in the photo and how it got on Northam’s yearbook page.

Looking ahead, Northam said he has asked his Cabinet secretaries to come up with specific proposals to begin addressing issues of inequality, such as expanding access to health care, housing and transportation, and to begin reporting suggestions on Monday.

“It’s obvious from what happened this week that we still have a lot of work to do. There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity,” he said. “There are ongoing inequities to access to things like education, health care, mortgages, capital, entre­pre­neur­ship. And so this has been a real, I think, an awakening for Virginia. It has really raised the level of awareness for racial issues in Virginia. And so we’re ready to learn from our mistakes.”

Northam has been in seclusion all week, using tunnels to shuttle between the mansion and the nearby building where he has an office. He has met with African American legislators and faith and community leaders, and has begun reading up on race — “The Case for Reparations,” an article in the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a few chapters of “Roots,” by Alex Haley. He said he has reflected on his own origins and tried to confront his lack of understanding.

Northam said he has had painful conversations this week with black lawmakers — who continue to call publicly for him to resign — about the issue of blackface, and why it was wrong for him to wear it to portray Michael Jackson in a San Antonio dance contest in 1984, as he has admitted doing.

“The things that I did back in medical school and — and — in San Antonio were insensitive and I have learned since that they were very offensive,” Northam said. “We learn from our mistakes and I’m a stronger person.”

Asked later what Northam meant by referring to things he did “back in medical school,” spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said he misspoke and just meant San Antonio, where he did his residency.

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Northam said he had been especially affected by a conversation with a black lawmaker, whom he declined to name, on the topic of blackface. He said he learned about the history of minstrel shows, where white people mocked black people “and exaggerated their characteristics and mannerisms.”

“And the main point that this person told me is that at the end of the day, the white person — just as I was the white person that dressed up as an African American dancer — at the end of the day we can take that makeup off and go back to being white,” but a black person continues to live in that skin and all that it represents.

Another black lawmaker, who he also declined to name, made a powerful point about white privilege, Northam said: That a white person who makes a mistake gets a second chance, while a black person might not. “That really helped put things in perspective for me to better understand why someone of white privilege has the opportunities that they have when an African American . . . doesn’t,” he said.

Northam said the humbling week and the late-in-life conversations about race have made him determined to refocus his governorship, but it seemed plain that he is just beginning to think through what that might mean.

Always cautious and low-key, Northam expressed no desire for radical action. Asked whether he felt liberated by the prospect of atoning for his mistakes, Northam quickly responded: “No question about that.”

But his first example of action was modest.

“First of all what I plan to do . . . is to make sure that we have sensitivity training — in our Cabinet, in our agencies. I also plan to reach out to our colleges and universities and talk about sensitivity training. Even into the K through 12 age range, that’s very important.”

On Friday, he said, he tasked his Cabinet “to think over the weekend how we could change and make new policy, how we could reshape Virginia through their Cabinet positions.”

For example, he said, Virginia has a serious issue with infant and maternal mortality — “we’ve talked about it, now it’s time to take action.”

Expanding Medicaid last year was a good start, he said, but state government needs to be aggressive about enrolling residents.

Northam said he has talked with Commerce Secretary Brian Ball about boosting affordable housing, fostering entre­pre­neur­ship among minorities and taking a look at whether minority-owned businesses are getting full access to state contracts.

He wants more resources for public transit to help those who don’t own cars and need better access to jobs, schools and retail, he said.

Immediately following the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, Northam suggested that Confederate monuments be moved from public property to museums. But later, Northam said the matter should be left to each locality.

On Saturday, he seemed to say he was willing to use his authority as governor to push the issue, if the monuments still prove provocative.

“I will take a harder line,” Northam said. “If there are statues, if there are monuments out there that provoke this type of hatred and bigotry, they need to be in museums.”

Northam pointed out that part of better understanding history is to have more context, more monuments of a broader swath of historical figures. He pointed to portraits in the Executive Mansion: civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill, for instance, and Barbara Johns, who fought to integrate public schools.

But earlier in the interview, Northam had also pointed out a portrait in the parlor of Henry Wise, who served as governor from 1856-60 and is the only other Virginia governor besides Northam to hail from the Eastern Shore. When it was pointed out that Wise was a staunch Confederate who defended slavery, Northam grimaced.

Should that portrait come down? “Well, I think that’s an important part of history, and we need to tell all history,” Northam said. “We have good history in Virginia . . . and we have history that’s not good and I don’t think we can shy away from any of it. We must tell it all, we must put it in perspective.”

Raised near the small fishing village of Onancock on the Eastern Shore, the son of a judge and a nurse, Northam said he is proud of his origins but that he is working to understand the missing pieces of his education about race.

Asked why it’s in the best interest of the state for him to work through these issues while in office, instead of heeding the calls to resign, Northam responded that he has a responsibility to the people who elected him.

“I have a lot more to learn. . . . The more I know, the more I can do,” Northam said. Speaking as a pediatric neurologist, he said he could feel the anguish of Virginians. “I want to heal that pain, and I want to make sure that all Virginians have equal opportunity . . . and I think I’m the person that can do that for Virginia.”

Northam said that he is setting up a “reconciliation tour” that will take him around the state to engage in conversations about race and healing, but that he had no details yet.

“I really do believe there’s a calling for all of us, and the fact that this happened this year” — on the 400th anniversary of the first Africans arriving in Virginia to be sold into slavery — “I think there’s a reason for that,” Northam said.

Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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