The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ralph Northam is done, whether he knows it or not

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) resisted calls to resign after his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing two people in blackface and KKK robe came to light. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) may not know it yet, but in all likelihood he is done.

On Friday, images emerged of Northam’s medical school yearbook page, on which there is a photo of a man in blackface next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam initially admitted he was in the “racist and offensive” photo, then denied it. Later, CBS News got ahold of Northam’s Virginia Military Institute yearbook, which listed his nickname as “Coonman.”

Rarely have calls for the resignation of a high-ranking public official been so swift. Several Democratic presidential candidates — including the two African American senators running — led the way. The incoming head of the Democratic Governors Association went on TV to urge Northam to step aside. The NAACP joined in the calls, as did big-name Democrats in Northam’s home state, including African American Mayor Levar Stoney of Richmond, two freshman congresswomen and his predecessor as governor, Terry McAuliffe.

Not everyone is there yet, but about the only people pleading for more time are Northam’s closest allies and friends, including state Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and state Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-King George). The fact that they even see this as a battle worth fighting is notable. Anyone who stands up for Northam now has to worry how history might come to judge that decision.

They also have to worry about what might come. We don’t yet know the details of the provenance of the photo or Northam’s “Coonman” nickname, but the fact that these kinds of things appeared in both his undergraduate and medical school yearbooks makes you wonder what else is out there. The likelihood that these were isolated incidents is basically nil. Northam will have a lot of explaining to do, and he’ll now have that chapter of his life probed endlessly.

The context is also important here. While some might be tempted to argue blackface wasn’t so taboo back in the early 1980s, this was an era in which the Klan was still active and still violent near where Northam grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, as Jerald Lentini noted.

In 1979, Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party killed five members of the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro, N.C. In 1980 in Chattanooga, Tenn., Klansmen wounded four black women with shotgun pellets and another with broken glass after shooting up a predominantly black neighborhood. What has been called the “last lynching in America” was perpetrated by the Klan in 1981 in Mobile, Ala.

And lastly, the events of recent weeks make this situation particularly untenable. We are just a week removed from Florida’s Republican secretary of state quickly resigning over his own (more recent) blackface photo. Northam also created headaches for his party just a few days ago by awkwardly characterizing a Democratic bill that would loosen restrictions on third-trimester abortions. Except Northam began talking about a “discussion” that would happen after the baby would be delivered in a way that led to charges he was talking about infanticide.

Democrats clearly have no desire to save a Democratic governor who is term-limited and who could only pose future headaches if he tries to keep his job. As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump writes, he may fight this and it may be difficult to impeach him if the state legislature goes down that road. And now that he’s largely forfeited the support of his party, the remainder of his time as governor would likely be a lost cause anyway.

Northam may fight this, but it will likely be in vain. Democrats want the moral high ground on issues of race, especially ahead of President Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, and a Governor Northam remaining in office would be a huge liability. There is too much incentive to get him out — and soon.