The Northam Controversy

The Northam controversy

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

            So, let’s start by my alerting you that my views on the Governor Northam controversy may be different from what you expect.  I don’t think that he should resign.

            The actions of Northam thirty-five years ago, whether he was in those pictures or not; whether he impersonated Michael Jackson or not, were stupid and racist.  There was never a ‘good’ time for such performances.  They were never funny nor should they have ever been acceptable.

            But these were actions taken thirty-five years ago, which goes to my first point:  there has been no discussion of whether Northam’s record since 1984 has been consistent OR inconsistent with the behavior represented by those pictures and his acknowledgement of having gone ‘black face.’  This, above all, is what I find amazing.

            We live in one of the most racist countries on this planet.  We have a country born on genocide against the First Nations and the enslavement of millions of Africans.  A country that stole northern Mexico, and imported Asian labor.  It is a country that has both mocked and demonized all people of color (and, actually, whites who would support our causes, e.g., John Brown).  This toxin has infected the entire culture of the USA, including what passes for comedy.  Why, then, should it surprise us that Northam or any white person hasn’t said or done something that is completely objectionable?

            The bigger question is, what have they done since?  Specifically, where do they stand on our issues and on progressive issues more broadly?  Are they continuing to articulate white supremacist and revanchist language, as is the case with Iowa Congressman Steve King?  Or, in the alternative, are they standing with us?

            I have yet to hear anyone who is calling for Northam to resign make such a connection.  People have been angered by the revelation—with good reason—and critiqued his second press conference, again with good reason.  But I have not heard anyone argue that his behavior has been consistent with those pictures.

            Why is this?

            Here is my second point.  A lot can change in thirty-five years.  I know a LOT of people who, thirty-five years ago, engaged in various forms of behavior of which they would not be proud.  I know a lot of people who were so completely wrong on certain issues brought to the public domain—and which I will not mention at this moment—for which they have NEVER apologized.

            Therefore, the question is this:  at what point do we say that someone who has done or said something objectionable, something that is not criminal by nature, has changed?  At what point do we note that their work illustrates at least some awareness of the limitations, if not wrongheadedness, of their former views and behavior?

            My final point.  Why is this coming out now?  What is going on politically at this moment that this would surface?  Does that make you scratch your head for a second?


Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the former president of TransAfrica Forum.  Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and He is the author of the new mystery The Man Who Fell From the Sky.

30 thoughts on “The Northam Controversy

  1. Evidence of his transformation would have made a very solid case and it appears as though he continues to lie about it. Own the past behavior, demonstrate what has transformed you and provide details about what you will do going forward to do all possible to deter others from engaging in this behavior. We all have engaged in reprehensible behavior and come with a past. Transcending that and practicing that transformation are critical.

    • What we need from Northam is to lead a discussion about race in Virginia. This is the demand that should be made rather than a demand for his resignation. His supporters, in the election, had a great deal of confidence in his work. That should count for something. My main point is that the incident happened 35 years ago. He condemned it in his press statements. Now we need a discussion about race, black-face, etc. And what better a year than 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first Africans brought to these shores as slaves and other forced labor. And the shores to which they were brought were none other than Virginia’s.

  2. Thank you, for a “reality check” that is quite similar to mine. Unfortunately in this current “microwave popcorn society”, the questions you raise, as I also did, will REQUIRE folks to think critically, instead of as criticizers, and condemners. Hypocrisy is in full bloom, these days, and destroying a reputation is as quick as a “click”!. Again, the idea of simply eliminating democratically-elected officials is dangerously close to what has happened within many societies that are currently undergoing extreme autocratic leaders who promote even more dire consequences. Further, while many folks have been quite foolish as youngsters, many also have become outstanding examples of learning from their mistakes. Something to ponder…While the jury is still out on those who have chosen to tattoo their bodies, does that mean the future may hold career assassinations ahead for them? Rushing to judgment is always unhealthy. But, doing the work of examination (including self), strategic patience, reflections towards the consequences would be an important use of culturally “relativistic” opinions.

    • I agree very strongly with you. Thank you for this. I can think of many mistakes that individuals have made, in some cases where they have acknowledged them and in other cases where they have not, but in either case they went forward to make important contributions. It is also important to interrogate allegations, which is a matter that goes beyond the Northam controversy. In this case I mean that the fact of an allegation does not mean that the allegation is a fact.

  3. Thank you Bill for your insightful piece. I wondered if I was the only one looking at this controversy saying it was over 30 years ago. What has he done and what is he proposing to do as Governor of Virginia? He just got elected as a Democrat in a southern state with a significant Black population that must have garnered a good amount of support from the Black community. I actually believe that with the surfacing of the photo, he can be successfully pressured to be even more progressive towards the needs of the Black community in Virginia than he was going to be beforehand. Certainly, letting a conservative Republican take the reins of the governorship would not serve the interests of any of us. Does anyone out there believe that a conservative GOPer from Colonial Heights doesn’t have a history of racism, sexism, and homophobia?

    • Thanks, John. I think that part of the problem is that many people are reacting to this rather than responding to these events. This is a time for a political calculation, and I mean that in the best sense of the term. There needs to be an evaluation of whether there is a consistency or inconsistency with the pictures and how to move a discussion within Virginia. Instead, there are those who are reacting with justified anger and a sense of betrayal that this could have ever happened, and then there are the purists who essentially don’t believe that anyone can change.

  4. I agree. I can hardly recall much of my private life 35 years ago, except I was battling two addictions–alcohol and nicotine–and driving a cab 12/7/365. I can check my politics by looking up my old articles, some of which hold up and some are weird by today’s standards. I know I never sexually assaulted anyone. It’s just not in my nature, sober or otherwise. But behavior at a party? Or a disco? Who knows. You key point is right. It’s not the incident but the ongoing pattern, if there is one. And what you have to say and do about it going forward.

    • I was not aware of this. Thank you. But it does not change my position. We can disagree with someone on a host of political issues. Sometimes those issues are serious enough to create a split. But that is different than suggesting that the attitude that was reflected in actions from 35 years ago is present. I have not heard ANYONE make such a suggestion.

  5. I’d just add that by his staying, he can be made to do what he is proposing, namely spending the rest of his term investigating and rooting out racism in the Old Dominion, and leading from the Governor’s mansion in eradicating it. If he leaves we lose that momentum despite getting rid of him.

  6. Northam works for Dominion Energy, and he’s helping them build a gas pipeline and transfer station through historic Union Hill and on native land. He removed people from the oversight committee who questioned the impact this would have the health of this historic African American community. He approved hundreds of millions in tax breaks for Amazon, a deal that will displace POC and push working people further out of cities. He is giving tax cuts instead of school funding, which will directly impact children of color in the most crowded districts.

    • Thanks and I hear you. But the issue before the public at this moment is whether his actions from 35 years ago justify demanding his resignation. Additionally, are his current actions consistent with the attitude reflected in those pictures and his admission of black-face? What is NOT being debated right now are all of the elements of his current policies and whether we are in disagreement with them. Even if he happened to have been our best friend we could have significant differences, including differences that would justify splitting with him. So, it is critical that a distinction is made. If you and others believe that the issue of his attitude around Dominion Energy should be protested, go for it! But I would caution against conflating that with the issues that are currently under debate.

  7. Thanks for writing what I was thinking! I am disheartened by how many of my “liberal” and/or “progressive” friends seem to be losing the ability to think critically as if somehow that would weaken the struggle for a non-racist society— to say nothing of how to create a new and better society. There are tactics and there are principles and sometimes it is hard to decide which to apply — but that is no reason not to try.

    • Thanks for this note. I think that there is a tendency to think in moralistic terms or, to put it in a slightly different way, to think as purists. If one understands the thoroughly racist nature of the USA, one must assume that the toxin spread broadly. The question is whether there are those who, though infected with racism,have mounted a challenge to that, even if inconsistently. Is there a path toward redemption and rectification?
      A few people have responded to my piece suggesting that forcing Northam to resign would send a message that the behavior, represented in those photographs and in his admission of black-face, is unacceptable. That is not the message that would be sent. It would be if Northam had just done this over Halloween in 2018 but to go back 35 years does not help to make the point. Instead it suggests that the mark of the devil is forever on one’s forehead. That is not the way that we transform the USA.

  8. Northam could make a great start by removing the many memorials to the confederacy from the state of Virginia. It has bugged me for a long time that when I travel on I-95 through the state, I see a big sign advertising the Stonewall Jackson “shrine”.

    • Indeed. But Northam can also start by reminding people of Virginia how deeply embedded racism is in the history of Virginia. The 400th anniversary of Africans coming in chains to the 13 colonies provides that. I obviously agree with you on the monument question.

      • When referencing that anniversary he didn’t even use the word slavery, he referred to “indentured servants”. I hear what you’re saying and it is something for us to remember generally but in his case it seems like he barely understands racism and has nothing to show for the past 35 years in terms of evolution. If others know of some example from his policies or rhetoric please set me straight as I am definitely not in the know about Virginia politics

        • Two points. I did not hear his remarks. But what is the case is that the first Africans FORCED to come to the 13 colonies came as BOTH indentured servants and slaves. Racial slavery-for-life became the predominant form of oppression for Africans later in the 1600s. I am not sure whether that was what he was trying to get at or whether he simply was in another world. In terms of his record, yes, you should look it up. This is someone who has voted regularly against voter suppression and taken other progressive stands even though he would not be someone I would ever describe as a leftist.

  9. Hi Bill. Thank you for your thoughtful piece. As far as I am able to trace the timeline, The NY Times Recently reported that the immediate provocation for all of this was a flap over a bill in the state legislature that would have reduced the obstacles to late term abortion. (would require a note from only one doctor instead of three.) Northam expressed support for this bill.
    One of the usual angry right wing fringe bloggers decided to retaliate by digging up and publicizing the photos now in question. The Republican state and national leadership were on board in a jiffy, demanding that the top three Democratic leaders in the state surrender their only very recently acquired power in this key electoral state.
    How and why is this not immediately transparent to the Democratic leadership in Virginia and nationally? Are we doomed to fall for Swift Boat tactics and strategies forever?

    • I could not put it better than you did. It was obvious from the very beginning that this was a provocation. One of the problems in the response was an understandable sense of betrayal that many people felt vis a vis Northam. But instead of stopping and reviewing the larger picture, there were those who were too quick on the trigger. This is very much like what happened to Al Franken. There seem to be many Democrats who believe that in order to criticize Republicans there can be no evidence of problems in the DP. That is ridiculous. The DP is such a broad tent that invariably there will be issues that emerge. But more importantly, those who were quick to call for Northam to resign should have (1)understood the political objectives of the forces on the attack [as you point out in your note], and (2)grasped the nature of this moment and that this is an opportunity to expand the discussion on race rather than restrict it to a continued focus on personal behavior. We need to be discussing the system of racist oppression. That needs to be the focus.

  10. Thank you Bill! I thought there was some right wing person who dug up the photos but your thoughtful perspective is what is missing in our current dialogue. I appreciate your insight

    • It was indeed stirred up by a right-wing anti-abortion advocate, who in turn activated Big League Politics, a right-wing publication:

      this situation started because Mr. Northam made comments supporting a state bill that would roll back restrictions on late-term abortions. His remarks prompted a “concerned citizen” to point a right-wing website toward the blackface photo in his medical school yearbook.

      (The Washington Post)
      By Paul Farhi February 3
      The reporter who exposed the racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page said a “concerned citizen” led him to the story that has prompted widespread outrage and calls for the Democrat’s resignation.

      Patrick Howley, editor in chief of the website Big League Politics, first reported Friday the existence of a photo on Northam’s page of his medical school yearbook depicting a figure in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

      The tip came after Northam’s comments on Wednesday about late-term abortions, he said.

      The source of the tip appears to have been a medical school classmate or classmates of Northam who acted as a direct result of the abortion controversy that erupted earlier in the week, according to two people at Big League Politics,

      “The revelations about Ralph Northam’s racist past were absolutely driven by his medical school classmate’s anger over his recent very public support for infanticide,” one of the two said.

    • We need voices of sanity on this travesty ! Who the heck gets pilloried about a tasteless remark or joke after 35 years?? He has never harmed anyone– physically or verbally attacked anyone– The extreme right brought this absurdity to light in order to force the Democrats out of office in Virgina! This is not just a case of a “racist” who changed his stripes! It is a case of a person who made a tasteless racist joke! That I do believe should disqualify most Americans from ever holding office!
      I am gratified that this man does not intend to resign! As a Virginian white man I am quite sure he knows just how vile his opposition really is.. and who it really is. .. and why the idea of a “white man’ and a Black man running the state of Virgina makes them do anything . I am not arguing that Northam is a perfect picture of progressive politics, and of course he needs to be addressed on real issues such as the destruction of black communities by the proposed oil pipeline, but those are real issues. Jumping into this three rig circus orchestrated by a Breitbart journalist is a repellent spectacle of manipulated suicide. This is a person who needs some support. the information concerning the source of this revelation was clearly exposed in the Washington Post, and should have lead to taking this ‘revelation of racism’ with the appropriate grain of salt. The sources an extremist right wing journal which poses as a independent organization in order to fill its pages with ‘controversies’ often black on black controversy– and is unabashedly pro-Trump and pro- old line confederate.
      From the article in the Washington Post.

      “The revelations about Ralph Northam’s racist past were absolutely driven by his medical school classmate’s anger over his recent very public support for infanticide,” one of the two said.

      Howley’s four-paragraph story, which included the yearbook photo, was quickly confirmed by The Washington Post and other news outlets Friday. The article ignited outrage on social media, immediate calls for Northam’s resignation and a contradictory response from Northam.

      In “I believe then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo,” he said in a prepared statement.

      Under reporters’ questioning, Northam acknowledged that he had dressed up as Michael Jackson, using shoe polish to darken his skin, when he attended a Halloween party a few months after graduating from Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1984.

      Howley’s story claimed that the photo shows Northam “and a friend.” But it offers no reporting to back up that assertion.

      Nevertheless, Howley stuck by that claim on Saturday.

      “It’s clearly a picture of him,” he said, but again could offer nothing more in support. He added, “The photo is genuine. It shows clearly he’s a racist.”

      Howley said he is co-owner of Big League Politics, which he described as politically “independent.” He didn’t mention the site’s close connection to Republican and Virginia politics.

      Big League Politics’s co-owners include Noel Fritsch, a consultant who worked for the campaign of Corey A. Stewart, a conservative, neo-Confederate sympathizer who unsuccessfully challenged Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D) for his seat last year, and Reilly O’Neal, another consultant who worked for Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate who accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward teenage girls when he was in his 30s.

      In its short existence, the website has reliably boosted Trump, attacked Democrats and liberal figures and written many articles promoting a discredited conspiracy theory popular among far-right conservatives about the murder of a young Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich in 2016.

      Howley said he called Northam’s office for comment before publishing his story but did not receive a reply. He also said he sent an “inquiry” to “people close to the governor” before publication but also received no reply from them.

      Howley describes Big League Politics as “independent journalism. It’s not Republican or Democrat or liberal or conservative. I want it to be an investigative wire service that gets the facts out there.”

      However, much of the material on the site would fit in with the conservative and populist ethos of the Daily Caller and Breitbart News, two organizations Howley worked for before leaving to start Big League Politics.

      An article written by Howley, for example, reports on a graphic that tracks “Deep State conspirator cells that have been fired in the age of President Donald Trump.” The story begins, “President Donald Trump continues to solidify the American people’s position in the federal government.”

      One category of articles is flagged “Fake News Media,” echoing Trump’s critique, and includes such headlines as “Washington Post Buys Super Bowl Ad to Pat Themselves and Fake News Media on the Back.”

      As one of Breitbart’s lead reporters on the 2016 campaign, Howley filed multiple dispatches a day, most of them favorable to Trump and critical of his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

      Upon hiring Howley in 2015, then-Breitbart executive chairman Stephen K. Bannon said Howley “is the type of reporter we have built the company around — smart, tough and aggressive. We are ecstatic about getting him immediately fully deployed.” Bannon later became Trump’s campaign chairman and White House strategist before being fired.

      Howley himself was suspended by Breitbart in March 2016 for tweeting his support of Trump’s then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, after Lewandowski yanked the arm of a Breitbart reporter, Michelle Fields, who sought to question Trump after an event.

      Howley left Breitbart after the 2016 election to start Big League Politics.

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