On Friday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook began to circulate. His page included a photo of a person in blackface standing next to someone dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. They were holding beers, and the man in blackface was smiling.
Friday evening, Northam acknowledged appearing in a “clearly racist and offensive” photograph and apologized. “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” he said. “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service.”
Northam has since said he will not resign. He also told allies he does not believe he’s in the picture.
It doesn’t matter. Democrats have worked hard to define themselves as the party of inclusion, an organization that won’t tolerate leaders who espouse white supremacy or racism. Anything less than a full denouncement of Northam would muddy this message.
And that seems to be exactly what’s happening. The party’s top officials, and several of its presidential hopefuls, quickly condemned Northam and urged him to step aside. Nancy Pelosi urged Northam to “do the right thing” and resign.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the first black woman with a serious shot at the White House, supported Northam’s gubernatorial bid. On the night of his election, she tweeted, “Congratulations to Ralph Northam and his team for showing that Virginia won’t stand for hatred and bigotry.”
But hours after the photo went public, Harris called for Northam’s removal from office. “Leaders are called to a higher standard, and the stain of racism should have no place in the halls of government,” she tweeted. “The Governor of Virginia should step aside so the public can heal and move forward together.”
The resignation calls are being led by black lawmakers and activists, particularly those in Virginia. “The Virginia Black Legislative Caucus has no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests,” a statement from the caucus said. “We are still processing what we have seen about the governor but unequivocally say what has been revealed is disgusting, reprehensible and offensive. We feel complete betrayal.”
“Black face in any manner is always racist and never okay,” Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, tweeted. “No matter the party affiliation, we can not stand for such behavior, which is why the @NAACP is calling for the resignation of Virginia Governor @RalphNortham.”
The Democrats' response highlights just how differently Democrats respond to incidents like this than the GOP does.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was repeatedly accused of using racially charged language to describe his opponent, Andrew Gillum, who was competing to be the first black governor of Florida. At one point, DeSantis warned voters that the former Tallahassee mayor would “monkey this up” if elected governor. DeSantis also spoke at four conferences organized by David Horowitz, a conservative activist who has said “African Americans owe their freedom to white people” and that the country’s “‘only serious race war” is against whites. Even so, Republicans continued to back DeSantis.
Trump called a black NFL player a “son of a bitch” and said he should be kicked out of the country for protesting racism. He referred to neo-Nazis and white nationalists as “very fine people.” He described large swaths of Africa as “shithole countries.” No major Republican lawmakers have called for his resignation.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) lamented to the New York Times that the term “white supremacy” had taken on a negative connotation. Though he was stripped of his committee assignments and censured, his Republican colleagues in the House did not call on him to resign.
As Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) wrote in The Washington Post, “Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism — it is because of our silence when things like this are said.”
The disparity in responses helps explain why Democrats continue to attract the overwhelming majority of voters of color.