Ralph Northam Reflects on His Journey Back From the Edge

RICHMOND, Va. — Just two years ago, nearly every national politician in the Democratic Party was calling for Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia to resign. A racist picture was discovered on Mr. Northam’s medical school yearbook page, and the physician-turned-politician said he did not know which person he was in the photograph — the white man dressed in blackface or the one in Ku Klux Klan regalia.

A series of twists helped Mr. Northam stay in office, including simultaneous scandals that engulfed his possible successors, a cross-generational coalition of Black activists who decided to defy national politics and stick by him, and a commitment from Mr. Northam’s administration to prioritize racial justice. And he followed through, shocking even his most ardent supporters, with a series of policy accomplishments that focused on racial equity.

Last week, as the ballot was set for Virginians to choose their next governor, Mr. Northam sat down for an extended interview to discuss his 2019 scandal and the personal and political evolution that followed. He reflected on what he has learned about race and his own white privilege, and how that understanding has changed his political priorities. He dismissed recent national concerns about critical race theory and so-called wokeness, saying his path of discovery has made him a better person.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

As a fact-checking thing, I know you said at the time you did not recall if you were either man in the racist photograph. Is that still true?

That is correct.

I wonder what your initial reaction was when it came out? Did you think your administration was over?

I guess it took a little while for the gravity of the situation to sink in. And then I talked to a lot of people, lots of friends and supporters, that were very hurt and upset by it. And there were some tenuous times that night, and the next day, as I was able to reach out and listen and talk to more people.

But the more I started thinking about it, I understood what’s going on. I know why these people are hurting. And I’m committed to learning, to listening and learning. And then having the pulpit, if you will, to really make some significant changes.

At the time, you articulated, as you do now, understanding the pain that the photograph caused. How did you feel comfortable saying, “Hey, these people are hurting, and they’re calling for me to resign, but I still won’t.”?

I know myself. I know how I was raised. I know that I got into this job because I want to help people. So I knew if people stuck with me, we could bring good.

I know that you compiled a reading list about race, and you did a listening tour. What were some of the things you read, and what did they teach you?

There were a number of books that were recommended. I have one by Robin DiAngelo called “White Fragility.” There was “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” One of the documentaries that I’ve watched a couple times is “13th.” Very powerful — that was probably what put things in perspective for me.

But the most powerful thing was people that were willing to sit down with me, and that I was willing to listen and learn from them. I was in the sixth grade when they desegregated schools, and my family chose to keep me in public schools, which was a great decision. I experienced white privilege and Black oppression, but I really never took the next step and have people explain to me why it was so important. The listening has made me a better person.

As a white person, we — people that look like me — need to take on that burden of educating the folks that we are associated with regarding racism, and white supremacy, and Black oppression and white privilege. That burden, for far too long, has been on people of color, rather than, ‘Let’s get some help from folks that look like me.’

I talked to people who met with you on that listening tour. And they say it was pretty explicit, that you were promising a change in priorities for your administration, that you were promising policy change. Was that the offer you were making?

I never looked at it as like, Let’s make a deal here. But what I did say is that I’m here to listen and I’m here to learn. And I’m in a position as governor and having a cabinet and working with legislators to really turn a lot of what we learn into action.

But some of the policy accomplishments that you’re touting around racial justice now would not have happened if not for the 2019 scandal? Is that accurate?

Absolutely.

So what was it about that moment that changed you?

It has really opened my eyes. It made me a better-educated and more-informed person. So it’s helped me to understand when people talk about Black oppression. And I don’t know that I was able to do that before February 2019. Not that my intentions weren’t there, because I’ve always tried to treat people equally and fair, but I understand more now.

I want to be clear. You’re saying this wasn’t a horse trade of politics, but that you changed personally and that was reflected in your policy priorities?

I meet with my cabinet every Monday morning. And I made it very clear from when this happened that we were going to work on equity and take what we learned and turn that into action.

Isn’t that rather a painful admission? That it took that moment of racist scandal for a Democratic governor to make racial equity a top priority?

Yes, I would have liked to have understood all this when I was, you know, sworn into office, but it wasn’t like that. I went to integrated schools from the sixth grade on, and I was actually a minority. I knew there were people that didn’t have rides after school when we practiced ball and we’d give them a ride home. And my mother and I, we used to go around and make sure people have something to eat on holidays. But the history, the 400 years of our history, I’ve learned a whole lot of that stuff, which I wish I would have known, since February of ’19.

Well, you’ve read a lot about race and whiteness over the last two, three years. Do you think a politician who wasn’t white could have survived this?

Every situation is different. Some of it’s about the timing. About what’s going on in your political career, and what’s going on in history and society and the time. I just made the decision that the best thing to do for Virginia was to listen and learn.

I was reading this week about Loudoun County in Virginia, where there’s been a big moral panic around some of the books you mentioned — saying that such teachings amount to an anti-white message in critical race theory. What would you say to white parents who are frankly afraid of the things you say have helped you grow?

Critical race theory is a dog whistle that the Republicans are using to frighten people. What I’m interested in is equity.

And part of this listening tour has been with young people, and it’s helped me reflect on my own education. Because what we’re teaching, and what we’ve been taught, is not only inadequate but inaccurate. Our textbooks are inadequate and inaccurate, as is who’s teaching them.

I think there are a lot of white people that are open-minded and want to do better. And you may be able to teach them something that they never really realized. But there’s some people that don’t want to lose their parking spots.

Do you share the fears of some Democrats that what you’re describing is leaning too far into a so-called wokeness? And that it is bad politically?

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, we’ll figure out that we have a lot more in common than divides us or separates us.

It is my understanding that you apologized to Black Virginia leaders for your news conference moment in 2019, in what seemed like a moment of levity, when you indicated you might moonwalk. Is that true? Do you regret that?

I don’t even want to go back and look at it. It was a difficult time, that press conference. I could no more moonwalk now than that picture behind you. Rather than getting ready to moonwalk, I was trying to think of something that was lighter to say. You don’t know me, but I can’t dance, for one thing. I was trying to think of something to say, and my wife told me that this wasn’t the best time.

Did you see the racial justice policy of the last two years as repaying a debt that you owed?

One of my proudest moments was being at Greensville Correctional Center and signing legislation to get rid of the death penalty. That’s another example of how Black oppression still existed in a different form. Doing things like that make me feel good about what I’ve done. But is it vindication for what I did, or what I’ve been through? I don’t really look at it like that. But, I think, having my eyes opened and being able to listen to so many people have helped me be able to really get involved with pieces of legislation like that.

I hear what you’re saying. I also think — as a Black person — isn’t this also a story of how someone can rise to be governor without ever learning that history? Isn’t there also a story of immense privilege here?

There’s no question about that. And I think if you look at my life, it’s been a story of privilege. I have had a life of privilege, and that’s why I want to level the playing field.

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