Tim Whyte | Ralph, Racism and the Governor Keeps Digging

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By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

“Racism is racism.”

So said Rep. Katie Hill’s Twitter account earlier this month as she joined fellow Democrats and Republicans alike in calling for the resignation of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. 

Northam, you may recall, came under fire after his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced. Included on the page was a photo of two young men, one wearing blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. 

Politicians on both sides of the aisle called for Northam’s resignation and, to their credit, Hill and many of her fellow Democrats did so despite the fact that Northam is also a Democrat. 

The congresswoman’s full tweet: “Racism is racism, regardless of political party or political convenience. This news breaking on the first day of #BlackHistoryMonth reiterates the work we still have to do to ensure equality and safety for all. I call for the resignation of Ralph Northam.”

She was right. 

Is it plausible that there’s a logical explanation for the yearbook photo? Possible, but it seems unlikely. I can imagine a universe in which someone on the yearbook staff put that picture on Northam’s page as some sort of sick practical joke. 

But that’s not the line of defense Northam pursued. After initially apologizing, he later came out and said that he wasn’t either of the two people in the photo. 

An aside: Geez, Virginia is a mess these days. They had that controversial abortion legislation, which apparently would have allowed abortions right up to kindergarten. (OK, I’m exaggerating. Settle down.) 

Then there’s the lieutenant governor, who would replace Northam if the governor resigned. He’s fending off accusations of sexual assault. 

And the attorney general, who’s third in line to be governor, admitted that he, too, wore blackface as part of a costume in the 1980s.

Cripes. If the scandals keep going deeper through the organizational chart, pretty soon their next governor is going to be a clerk from the Virginia DMV.

Northam’s handling of the situation was almost comical. It’s like “Ralph Wrecks the Internet… AND His Own Reputation…”

At first he apologized. Then he said he wasn’t either of the individuals in the photo. But it appeared on his page. For SOME reason. 

At the press conference he held to address the issue, the governor couldn’t leave well enough alone — he said he wasn’t the one in blackface in THAT photo, but there was this one other time…

Apparently, in the same year as the yearbook photo, the governor participated in a dance contest in which he portrayed Michael Jackson, so he used “a little shoe polish” on his face to look the part. He boasted that he could even do Michael’s signature “moonwalk” dance step!

Here, Ralph. Take this shovel. Keep digging.

His PR people probably lost their lunch at that moment. It looked like his wife was about to lose her lunch, too, when a reporter asked if he could still moonwalk, and Northam looked around, as if he was contemplating a demonstration of the technique and needed to find the right spot. 

“Inappropriate circumstances,” said his wife, who’s apparently the level head in the Northam household. 

Alas. No moonwalk demonstration ensued. That would have been awesome.

By the way, did anyone else notice that all the attention seemed to be focused on the “blackface” portion of the photo, and it seemed like the other person in the photo — THE GUY WEARING A KKK ROBE — was ignored?  

Aren’t the two things pretty close to being equally offensive? 

Anyway. I also don’t buy the lines of defense that go something like this: “It was a long time ago. It was a different era. He didn’t know any better.”

Wait. What? This was 35 years ago, not 150. I think by the mid-1980s most reasonable folk understood how and why appearing in blackface is considered offensive.  

And yet, here we are in 2019, and we still have recent examples of people — including some high-profile celebrities — who somehow don’t get it. There was the reality star who wore blackface for a Diana Ross costume, and then TV news personality Megyn Kelly defended that, and other similar Halloween costumes, for good measure.

Kelly faced swift and harsh backlash, so maybe there’s hope. But still: By now, shouldn’t common sense be… well, common?

Then there are the well-meaning but misguided, like the Sacramento teacher who wore makeup to lend authenticity to her portrayal of an African character in a history lesson. She seemed like she meant well, but by now you’d think anyone, especially an educator, would think twice before donning anything resembling blackface. 

It’s certainly easy enough to have one’s intentions misunderstood. I know — I’ve been misunderstood before (sometimes willfully so). And, there’s a current trend coming from the left that wields the “racist” label as a speech-suppressing hammer — for example, by falsely equating opposition to illegal immigration with racism. Simply labeling something as racist does not make it so.

Still, we’ve got work to do, and some of that work cuts the other way. Just this week, a Pennsylvania college student came under fire for a commentary she wrote entitled, “Should White Boys Still Be Allowed to Talk?” (Her answer: No, they should not. But she says she’s not a racist.) 

In the humble opinion of this particular white male, we should oppose racism in ALL of its forms — both historic, and newly evolving. And we shouldn’t buy lame excuses from those who defend or dismiss things like blackface in Halloween costumes or photos depicting klansmen in college yearbooks.

I’ve said this before and been misunderstood, but in the interest of clarity: Bigotry is bigotry. And racism is racism. 

Just like Katie Hill said.

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On twitter: @TimWhyte.  

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