If this weekend solidified anything, it’s that the new rule of thumb in politics should be “Always check the yearbook.” Over the past 15 months, school yearbooks have played a part in three separate political controversies. Two of them are Alabama Senate nominee Roy Moore signing the yearbook of a high school girl who later accused him of sexual assault, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s inclusion in his high school yearbook of a reference to a possible sexual conquest. Then on Friday, an obscure right-wing website published pictures of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook page from his senior year of medical school. On it was a photo of two men, one in blackface and the other dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Ralph Northam, a pediatrician and Army Medical Corps veteran, has been serving as the Democratic Governor of Virginia for little more than a year after he won a landslide nine-point victory over former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie. Northam was already a major story due to comments on a radio show that were widely interpreted as an endorsement of infanticide. While outrage over post-birth abortion was limited to conservative circles, the racist photograph turned heads of every political stripe and became the leading headline.
The outcry from the Democratic base was swift and immediate: explain then resign. Northam did the former, releasing first a written and then recorded statement Friday evening. The written statement declared, “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.” No inclination towards resignation was mentioned, however.
Shock joined anger when in a Saturday afternoon press conference, Governor Northam retracted his previous statement and claimed, “I believe then, and now, that I am not either of the people in that photo.” Say again? “I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe,” he continued. No kidding. While the individual faces in the photograph cannot be identified due to the blackface and hood, it is one of multiple photos on Northam’s page, and all the others feature only him. The photo is printed under his name. He admitted to being in the photo (while not identifying which figure he was), before taking it back. The retraction, coupled with a continuing refusal to resign, was interpreted by an incredulous public as a dishonest scheme to remain in office and weather the storm. As of this writing, Ralph Northam remains in office, resolute in the face of universal demands that he resign.
The insistence from the Democratic base that Northam leave has been coupled with whataboutism and moral preening. All weekend, progressives tried their best to reshape perceptions and turn this embarrassment into an opportunity. The message has been consistent. Democrats call for a resignation within hours, while Republicans have been tolerating racism for years! Only Democrats know how to hold their officials accountable! This proves once and for all that there is a big moral difference between the parties! Want Northam to resign? Okay, now let’s do such-and-such Republican!
This attempt by Democrats to change the conversation is a political ploy built around inaccuracy and purposeful misperception.
To begin with, good timing has brought us a perfect analogy. Just one week ago, a photo was leaked by the Tallahassee Democrat of Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel dressed in blackface as a “Hurricane Katrina victim” at a 2005 Halloween party. Ertel, a Republican, resigned the same day. “There’s nothing I can say,” Ertel told the paper. There was no fuss, no unnecessary press conference, just an immediate resignation for what is obviously inexcusable behavior from a public official. Caught in the same position, Ralph Northam didn’t have the dignity to do what his Republican counterpart did.
Next is the ubiquitous example, Congressman Steve King of Iowa. Just elected to his ninth term in the House, King has built a notorious reputation as one of the leading critics of immigration and multiculturalism in Congress. And in the past four months, King has succeeded in racking up multiple racist incidents. In October, he endorsed Faith Goldy, a candidate for Mayor of Toronto who is an open white nationalist activist. In November, the now-defunct Weekly Standard quoted King at a campaign stop referring to Mexicans coming to the United States as “dirt.” King disputed the quote, calling the accusation “false and manufactured.” Then the Standard released their audiotape, showing definitively that King had been quoted accurately. Finally, just last month, The New York Times published excerpts from an interview with King, including, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” King once again claimed to have been misquoted. While the Times has yet to produce any audio tape, it’s difficult to give Congressman King any benefit of the doubt considering the previous episode.
After that last incident, Steve King was removed from all House committee assignments. Despite being condemned by numerous Republican politicians and conservative publications, like Northam, he has refused to resign. It is a lie to say that the GOP hasn’t held King responsible for his comments. And it’s dishonest to say that Republicans have been ignoring his behavior for decades.
The Times put together a timeline purporting to show all of Steve King’s racist remarks going all the way back to 2002. Included in the list are pushes to make English an official language, promotion of immigration restrictionism (including a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border), recognition of the material existence of Western civilization, and meeting with “far-right” leaders of European political parties (a common media tactic is using the scare-term “far-right” to describe any political party that believes in national borders). The problem with the list is that outside of the three examples described in detail above, nothing else on it is racist. This comes down to a problem of definition: to conservatives, racism is hatred or bigoted disparagement of another race; to leftists, racism is quickly becoming anything that is not progressive. Are you skeptical of diversity as a cure-all for society’s ills, oppose amnesty for illegal aliens, or oppose affirmative action as unfair racial quotas? To these progressive activists, you’re no better than David Duke.
In all reality, Congressman Steve King has been punished by the Republican Party commensurate with his actions.
Democrats with an obvious axe to grind have even mentioned former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul. In the late 1980s, portions of Paul’s widely circulated newsletters were published that contained derogatory statements about Martin Luther King Jr. and racially insensitive innuendos about the black community. Even Paul’s most virulent critics admit the content was ghostwritten, and most say it’s likely he never read them. Paul condemned the language in the mid-1990s and never looked back. In a public career spanning over 40 years, no racism has been documented from his mouth or pen.
None of this holds a candle to what Ralph Northam admitted to doing on Friday. The man in blackface in the yearbook photo is clearly meant to be Jim Crow, the theater troupe minstrel character popularized by white actor Thomas D. Rice in the 1830s. Face blackened, dressed in rags, and accentuating the lips, eyes, and ears in racist caricatures, “Jim Crow” portrayed blacks as lazy, stupid, and bumbling. So widespread did the character become in American culture that he became a catchall term for blacks, a negative slur. That is why the era of racial segregation in the United States is referred to as the “era of Jim Crow” and “Jim Crow laws.”
Dressing up as Jim Crow, or appearing next to him dressed as a member of an organization responsible for decades of violence and intimidation against black Americans is damning enough. But the context worsens it. This was not a youthful indiscretion. This took place in 1984 during Northam’s senior year of medical school when he was 25 years old. To appear in the yearbook, Northam would have had to submit it along with his other photos. This indicates that he took pride in it, at least enough to think it was worth publicizing and remembering. His late denial is further belied by the fact that in a separate yearbook from his time at the Virginia Military Institute where he graduated in 1981, it lists one of his nicknames as “Coonman.”
Both Republicans and Democrats agree that Ralph Northam ought to resign from Virginia’s governorship. Despite the fraudulent accusations of progressive activists, the Republican Party stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Democratic Party when it comes to fighting racism in politics.
Hunter DeRensis is a reporter for The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.