RICHMOND, Virginia – Just two years ago, almost every national Democratic Party politician called for the resignation of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. A racist picture was discovered on Mr. Northam’s yearbook page, and the doctor-turned-politician said he did not know which person he was in the photo – the white man in the black face or the one in Ku Klux Klan Insignia.
A number of twists and turns helped Mr. Northam stay in office, including simultaneous scandals that engulfed his possible successors, an intergenerational coalition of black activists who decided to defy and adhere to national politics, and the commitment of Mr. Northam’s government to Prioritize racial justice. And he followed and shocked even his most ardent supporters with a series of political achievements centered on racial justice.
Last week, as the election of the next Virginian governor was scheduled, Northam sat down for a lengthy interview to discuss his 2019 scandal and the personal and political development that followed. He thought about what he has learned about race and his own white privilege, and how that understanding has changed his political priorities. He rejected recent national concerns about critical racial theory and so-called wakefulness, saying his journey of discovery made him a better person.
This interview has been slightly edited and shortened for the sake of clarity.
To check the facts, I know that you said at the time that you cannot remember whether you were one of the two men in the racist photo. Is that still true?
I wonder what your first reaction was when it came out? Did you think your administration was over?
I guess it took a while to get the gravity of the situation. And then I talked to a lot of people, to a lot of friends and supporters, who were very hurt and upset. And there were some tricky times that night and the next day when I was able to reach out and listen and talk to more people.
But the more I started to think about it, the more I understood what was going on. I know why these people are hurt. And I am committed to learning, listening and learning. And then having the pulpit, if you will, to really make some significant changes.
Then, as now, you articulated that you understood the pain that the photo caused. How do you think you felt when you say, “Hey, these people are hurt and they’re asking me to step back, but I still won’t.”
I know myself. I know how I grew up. I know I got into this job because I want to help people. So I knew that if people stayed with me, we could bring good things.
I know you made a reading list about races and took a listening tour. What did you read and what did they teach you?
There were a number of books recommended. I have one from Robin DiAngelo called “White Fragility”. There was “unpacking the invisible backpack”. One of the documentaries I’ve seen a couple of times is “13th”. Very powerful – that was probably what put things in perspective for me.
But what was most powerful were the people who were willing to sit down with me and who I was willing to listen to and learn from them. I was in sixth grade when they desegregated and my family chose to keep me in public schools which was a great decision. I’ve experienced white privilege and black oppression, but I really never took the next step and explained to myself from people why it was so important. Listening made me a better person.
As a white person, we – people who look like me – have to take on this burden of educating the people we are associated with about racism and white supremacy, black oppression and white privilege. This burden rests on people of color for far too long instead of: “Let’s get help from people who look like me.”
I’ve spoken to people you met on this listening tour. And they say it was pretty clear that you promised a change in priorities for your government, that you promised a change in policy. Was that your offer?
I never looked at it like we were making a deal here. But what I said is that I am here to listen and I am here to learn. And I’m in the position of governor, I have a cabinet, and I work with lawmakers to put much of what we learn into action.
But some of the political achievements you are now promoting in terms of racial justice would not have happened without the 2019 scandal? Is that exactly?
What changed you in that moment?
It really opened my eyes. It made me a more educated and informed person. So it helped me understand when people talk about black oppression. And I don’t know if I could do that before February 2019. Not that my intentions weren’t there because I’ve always tried to treat people equally and fairly, but now I understand more.
I want to be clear You say that this was not a horse profession in politics, but that you have changed personally and that is reflected in your political priorities?
I meet with my cabinet every Monday morning. And I made it very clear from the start that we are working for justice and putting what we have learned into practice.
Isn’t that more of a painful admission? That it took this moment of the racist scandal for a democratic governor to make racial justice a top priority?
Yes, I would have liked to have understood all of this when, you know, I was sworn in in office, but it wasn’t like that. From the sixth grade on I attended integrated schools and was actually a minority. I knew there were people who didn’t have rides after school when we were training ball and we drove them home. And my mom and I, we used to go around making sure people got something to eat on the holidays. But history, 400 years of our history, I’ve learned a lot since February 19 about this stuff that I wish I knew.
Well, you’ve read a lot about race and whiteness in the past two or three years. Do you think a politician who wasn’t white could have survived this?
Every situation is different. Some are about timing. About what’s going on in your political career and what’s going on in history and society and in time. I have just made a decision that the best thing for Virginia is to listen and learn.
I read about Loudoun County in Virginia this week, where there was great moral panic over some of the books you mentioned – and said that such teachings amount to an anti-white message in Critical Racial Theory. What would you say to white parents who, frankly, are scared of the things that have helped them grow?
Critical Race Theory is a dog whistle that Republicans use to scare people. What interests me is equity.
Part of this listening tour was with young people and helped me think about my own education. Because what we teach and what we have been taught is not only insufficient but also imprecise. Our textbooks are inadequate and inaccurate, just like the ones they teach.
I think there are a lot of white people who are open-minded and want to do better. And you may be able to teach them something that they never really realized. But there are some people who don’t want to lose their parking spaces.
Do you share the concern of some Democrats that what you are describing leans too far into what is known as wakefulness? And that it is politically bad?
No, I think the more we know about our history, the better.
The more I can learn about you and the more you can learn about me, the more we will find that we have much more in common than what separates or separates us.
My understanding is that you apologized to the Black Virginia leaders for your 2019 press conference moment, at a moment of ease when you indicated you might be moonwalking. Is that true? Do you regret that?
I don’t even want to go back and see it. It was a difficult time this press conference. I couldn’t moonwalk anymore than this picture behind you. Instead of preparing for the moonwalk, I tried to think of something easier. You don’t know me, but for one thing, I can’t dance. I tried to come up with something and my wife told me this was not the best time.
Have you viewed the racial justice policies of the past two years as repaying a debt you owed?
One of my proudest moments was being at the Greensville Correctional Center signing a law abolishing the death penalty. This is another example of how black oppression existed in another form. When I do things like that, I feel good about what I’ve done. But is it a justification for what I’ve done or what I’ve been through? I don’t really see it that way. But I think having opened my eyes and being able to listen to so many people helped me really come to terms with such laws.
I hear what you say I also think – as a black man – isn’t this also a story about how someone can become governor without ever knowing that story? Isn’t there also a history of immense privileges here?
This is not a question. And I think if you look at my life it’s a story of privilege. I’ve had a privileged life and that’s why I want to level the playing field.