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Opinion

Op-Ed: Stop with the shifting stories, Gov. Northam, and explain yourself

Ralph Northam
Once Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam fully and honestly explains the origins of the offensive photo on his yearbook page, important dialogues can begin.
(Steve Helber / Associated Press)

Virginia’s Democratic governor is in hot water, and it’s not just over the racist photo recently discovered in his 1984 medical school yearbook. His handling of the scandal has been almost as disappointing.

The photo, first unveiled by a conservative news site, features a person in blackface, flashing a grin, and another wearing the white-robe-and-pointy hood uniform of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s prominently displayed on Ralph Northam’s profile page in the yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School the year he graduated.

In the days since the picture surfaced, Northam’s explanations have changed so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up.

First he took the mea culpa route: “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 told Virginians on Friday.

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Then, after talking to friends and classmates, he decided that it might not be him in the picture after all. He admitted performing in blackface as Michael Jackson in a dance contest earlier that year, and he even seemed to consider moon-walking for the press when asked to over the weekend. But he said he had no recollection of posing for the vile yearbook photo.

By Saturday, he’d opted to go the “fake news” route and claim that he’d never even seen the damnable photo before, knew nothing about its subjects and had no idea how it wound up on his profile page. And since then, he’s only dug in further. As the clamor has grown for him to step down, he seems ever more determined to hang on.

It’s all made Northam look like a liar, a stooge and an egomaniac — which is worse, in my mind, than just copping to being a bigot when you were young.

Instead of all the shifting stories, just explain to us why the offense wasn’t clear to you back then.

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You were 25, on the way to becoming a pediatrician. And you devote a big chunk of your yearbook page, your legacy, to mocking black people and normalizing the KKK.

It’s easy to fixate on the insulting blackface image, with outrage that’s hashtag-ready to share. Blackface has become an avatar for bigotry that can range from clueless to criminal. It’s easy to condemn — and sometimes to forgive — but it’s only a symptom of a bigger problem that has dogged us for centuries.

What’s more shocking and irredeemably offensive about the yearbook photo is the image of the white-robed Ku Klux Klansman posed next to the grinning faux Negro.

There’s no ambiguity in that. The message and the attitude it conveys is clear. And none of Northam’s shifting memories can excuse or obliterate that.

I recognize that we all did things when we were young that we’d be embarrassed to acknowledge today. But this was no benign youthful indiscretion; this was a hateful gesture that Northam felt safe to make.

If there’s a lesson in this so far, it’s the reminder that political party isn’t a measure of character. There are rogues and phonies and bigots on both sides of the aisle.

But this goes beyond politics. And it’s not enough to apologize to the citizens of Virginia or, in the language of every miscreant, to anyone who might be offended.

Everyone should be offended by a glorification of terrorists such as the Ku Klux Klan. And the fact that the Virginia medical school thought the photo suitable celebratory fare in 1984 explains a lot about the racial divide that persists in this country today.

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At least the university has apologized for the racial transgression and promised “self-reflection and humility.”

Northam owes us some self-reflection, too. In Virginia, he’s been considered a likable, socially responsible Democrat. How do we all square that perception with this photo?

Northam said over the weekend that, “in the place and time when I grew up, many actions we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace.”

But I’d like to know what he was like back then.

I’m no stranger to the South, but I’m racking my brain to try to understand what would lead the young Northam to be so proud of such a racist image that it shares a yearbook space with his beloved sports car.

Was he raised in all-white settings and ignorant of the message that photo would send? Was he a loner or misfit and desperate for the approval of racist classmates?

And is he now a repentant bigot who could actually teach us all something?

This is not the time for forgive-and-forget; there’s more than a political career at stake here.

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Teach us something, governor: What does the inner life of your evolution look like? How did you become the earnest, fair-minded person that even people who are disappointed right now say they believe you to be? Are you willing to stop making excuses, put your shame aside and share?

If so, this might be an opportunity for the sort of dialogue that brings us all closer to understanding the legacy of racial discrimination in this country, and ultimately promotes the kind of reconciliation we desperately need.

Sandy Banks is a former Los Angeles Times reporter, editor and columnist. She is a senior fellow with the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

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