Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam should listen to the growing chorus of people calling for his resignation. The bizarre press conference he held over the weekend to defend himself only made it more untenable for him to continue in office. Even if he didn’t show outright racism by wearing blackface or the costume of a klansman as depicted in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook (though we found his backtracking story hard to believe), he did in fact admit to wearing blackface. He had to have known it was was offensive, and saying it was part of a Michael Jackson costume doesn’t make it better. The blase way he spoke about the get up and the familiarity he seemed to have with the practice (So it’s hard to remove black shoe polish, is it?), falls far short of repentance. Whatever questions emerged today after reports that a woman had accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault in a 2004 encounter (which have not been substantiated) don’t change the fact that Mr. Northam has to go.
We are heartened that members of both parties have shared in the denunciation, and particularly that Democrats have been as quick to call for Governor Northam’s resignation as they have been to criticize members of the GOP for racist words and behavior. (We assume Republicans’ calls for him to resign mean they will be as quick to apply the same standards to their own, even if that means criticizing President Donald “very fine people on both sides” Trump.)
But even if Mr. Northam does the right thing, what happens after that? Virginia, and the rest of the country for that matter, should use moments like this as an awakening and way to move race relations forward. Instead, there is often immediate outrage, but less often systemic change. Mr. Northam said he would stay in office to help the state heal racial divisions, but he didn’t say how he would do that. He said he wants to take on the hard task of confronting his past. Well, let’s see him do it. Now is the time for Virginia’s leaders to step up.
There are plenty of places the state could start in ending offensive practices that conveniently ignore the role Virginia played in slavery and the oppression of African Americans. Like denouncing the state holiday that celebrates the legacies of Confederate generals Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert E. Lee — and on the the Friday before the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at that. Lee’s statue also represents Virginia at the National Statuary Hall Collection, where states choose two luminaries to honor. Legislative efforts to replace the statue with someone else have failed.
Lawmakers could also stop fighting efforts to move such monuments throughout the state, as they have consistently done. State law prohibits governments from removing or defacing war memorials, which pretty much covers all Confederate monuments. Monument Avenue in Richmond, a picturesque tree-lined street with odes to Confederate leaders, serves a constant reminder to the strong resistance to removing Confederate symbols despite the hate they may stir up.
Then there are the tributes to Confederates, like the one to celebrate Lee’s 212th birthday that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a descendant of slaves, chose to sit out last month. Maybe more state lawmakers should also choose to protest rather than celebrating such dubious heroes.
Virginia should have gotten to this point long ago, and certainly after the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, when tiki torch carrying white nationalists descended on the small college town to protest planned removal of a Lee statute. The day erupted in violence and the tragic death of civil rights activist Heather Heyer, who was killed after a car rammed into the crowd.
In the aftermath, Mr. Northam supported removing Confederate statues throughout the state, only later to change his mind in favor of putting those decisions in the hands of local leaders. Support also fell short in the legislature, where several bills to remove or relocate Confederate statues were voted down.
We hope that Virginia doesn’t miss this opportunity, too, that Mr. Northam uses this embarrassing, see the light moment to bring some of Virginia’s race issues to the forefront. After all, Mr. Northam says he sincerely changed since he was a naive medical student. Let’s see it. But nothing we’ve seen so far suggests he or anyone else is going to seize on the moment.