The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The unfinished education of Ralph Northam

Julie Langan, Virginia's director at the Department of Historic Resources, and Gov. Ralph Northam. (Julia Rendleman/For The Washington Post)
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It seemed at first like a very long shot. Rejecting calls for his resignation amid a blackface scandal in 2019, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) promised not just to dedicate the remaining three years of his term to pursuing racial justice but also to grapple with his own White privilege.

But he was true to his word, and Virginia is a more inclusive and equitable place as a result. Northam’s process of discovery helps explain how a good-old-boy with an aw-shucks demeanor and an Eastern Shore lilt — who voted twice for George W. Bush — emerged as perhaps the most consequential liberal governor in the commonwealth’s history.

“I thought I knew a lot more than I did,” the 62-year-old said during an hour-long conversation this week with The Post’s Editorial Board. “When we talk about Black oppression, a lot of people that look like me think that ended with slavery. The reality is that Black oppression is alive and well in 2021, just in a different form.”

Northam recounted several aha! moments. Reviewing his fourth-grade civics book, he was unsettled by an illustration of enslaved Africans arriving on our shores looking happy and festive — as though they were coming for a party. Watching Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “13th” opened the governor’s eyes to the many ways mass incarceration is a legacy of Jim Crow. Reading historian Ty Seidule’s book “Robert E. Lee and Me” impressed on Northam how Confederate statues glorifying the Lost Cause went up in reaction to agitation for civil rights.

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Northam should have understood the corrosiveness of systemic racism before starting a job once held by Thomas Jefferson. He shouldn’t have needed international humiliation and “a reconciliation tour” to immerse himself in his state’s dark history. But the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Northam signed a law in March that made Virginia the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty. He legalized marijuana after reading a study that found Black users were three times more likely to be arrested for possession than their White counterparts. He raised the threshold for felony larceny from $500 to $1,000 and changed the rules so people won’t lose their driver’s licenses if they cannot afford court fees. He vetoed two mandatory minimum sentencing bills, citing studies showing they disproportionately harm defendants of color, and exempted juveniles who are tried as adults from mandatory minimums.

The governor restored voting rights to more than 111,000 felons and signed a first-of-its-kind, state-level Voting Rights Act. He banned police chokeholds and made Virginia only the third state to ban “no-knock” warrants, with few exceptions. After a special session last fall focused on criminal justice reform, Northam signed legislation requiring officers who witness a colleague using excessive force to intervene and established minimum training standards for law enforcement.

The Post's View: How Ralph Northam rebounded from scandal to embrace racial equity

Northam signed a package that repealed 98 laws from the Jim Crow era that were no longer enforceable but still enshrined in the penal code, including a ban on interracial marriage and requirements that trains, playgrounds and steamboats stay segregated. He also established a process to remove racist housing covenants from property deeds.

Most of what Northam accomplished, including a law giving localities the power to remove Jim Crow-era statues of Confederate generals, such as the ones on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, was possible only because Democrats gained control of the House of Delegates and Senate in the 2019 elections — giving the party control of state government for the first time in 25 years.

Virginia Democrats lost the lower House last month as Republican Glenn Youngkin won the election to succeed Northam, who was barred by the state’s constitution from seeking a second consecutive term. Youngkin is not going to put Lee’s statue back in Richmond, and he must work with a Democratic Senate, but the governor-elect has promised to “ban” the teaching of critical race theory on his first day in office.

Northam called the GOP’s focus on critical race theory a dog whistle. “Fear and anxiety are very, very strong emotions,” he said. “Nobody’s pushing critical race theory, but we need to teach the truth, and that has not been occurring.” He is adamant that Youngkin’s narrow victory is not a repudiation of his agenda and predicts his successor won’t try to roll back his achievements. “If that happens,” Northam said, “the pendulum will quickly swing back.”

Northam knows from experience. His approval rating plummeted to 31 percent after the blackface photo emerged, and then bounced back. The latest Post-Schar School poll shows he has support from 52 percent of Virginians, including 82 percent of Black voters and 44 percent of Whites.

As Northam prepares to return to private practice as a pediatric neurologist, Democrats are faring poorly in rural communities like the one where he was raised. The governor scratched his head when I asked why the cultural disconnect continues to widen between his urban base and rural hometown. “Two busloads of people I grew up with went to the insurrection on Jan. 6,” Northam said. “I’m embarrassed by that. How to turn that around, though, I don’t have an answer for you.”