Racist photos of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam surfaced this weekend. The photos appeared in his medical school year book depicting a white person in blackface dressed in preppy clothing of the day, madras pants and bow tie, standing by another person in Ku Klux Klan robes. My first question was, “How did these not come out earlier?” My second thought was, “I remember those guys.”

In today’s political environment, Northam’s career is done. He botched the response to the photo, coming up with several answers instead of just one. The photo came out just days after he caused a storm over botched comments about abortions. I hope he was a better doctor than he was a politician. 

That said, I don’t like this trend of demanding an end of careers for mistakes made decades ago. I didn’t like the way Brett Kavanaugh was treated and I don’t like the rush to judgement here. There’s no doubt that Northam at least tolerated racist views back in 1985. It’s less clear what he believes today. People change, evolve and mature. We should look at the totality of someone’s life and accomplishments before penalizing them for behavior or views held 35 years ago. Unfortunately, that’s not where we are today. 

Republicans who gleefully point to Northam as a racist Democrat need to get over themselves. Northam voted Republican until the mid-2000s. He may well have found his views on race had evolved to a point where he no longer could be a member of the GOP. Back when Northam thought mocking African-Americans was funny, conservatives were blasting liberals for being too politically correct when they criticized such behavior.   

Northam’s photo was taken several years before George H. W. Bush aired the Willie Horton ad or Jesse Helms ran his notorious Hands ad. His racist humor in 1985 fit well with the GOP of the time and while Northam’s views on race might have evolved, the GOP’s are slower to change. Less than a year and a half ago, Donald Trump defended white nationalists marching in Charlottesville and nobody from the GOP demanded he resign. For years, Representative Steve King (R-IA) got away with making racists comments without a word from Republican leaders.

If Republicans want to prove they’re not the party of white nationalists, then do something to show it besides gloating over a 35 year old photo on the former Republican’s yearbook page. Demand that Congress fix the Voting Rights Act. Speak out against laws that make voting more difficult for older African-Americans. Look for ways to close the huge wealth gap created by hundreds of years of systemic racism and laws denying African-Americans access to capital and the fruit of their labor. Do something instead of just saying something.


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