Governor Ralph Northam and Racism Today: A Political and Theological Reflection


Image Courtesy of ABC News

Justin Oei, Staff Writer

Recently, a disturbing photo from a medical school yearbook page published in 1984 surfaced: two young men standing next to each other, one in blackface and the other in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. The yearbook page was that of none other than current governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam (D) who, in the days since, has faced intense scrutiny and calls from both Republicans and his fellow Democrats (including the entire Democratic caucus in the Virginia legislature) to resign. While Governor Northam denies the allegations – he says that the pictures in the yearbook were mixed up – he nonetheless has admitted to using blackface to impersonate Michael Jackson in the past.

As a future Virginian (since I will be moving to Williamsburg for college in the fall), I am utterly disappointed with the governor’s actions. As many news commentators have pointed out, the photograph was taken in either 1984 or within a few years prior. Blackface (which arose in Jim Crow era white troubadours’ minstrel shows lampooning African-Americans) was unconscionable then, just as much as it is today. The Klan was a hate group then, as it is today. I’m saddened that Northam has not chosen to resign from his office, and he is yet to let the healing process begin for his constituents. And as a Democrat, I hope that my party can hold its own members to the very same measures of accountability that we hold those outside it when they commit acts of bias towards other groups, be it because of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any physical characteristic at all.

Of course, modern racism is not limited to those in the African American community (although their experience is not trivial in any way). In November, I presented a project for AP English Literature about Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, an opera set in Japan written in the late 19th century. Traditionally, the way that (mostly white) actors portray the stereotyped (Japanese) characters is by dyeing their faces (“Yellowface”) and taping their eyelids to make them look more characteristically Asian. Yellowface, even for the sake of theatrical accuracy, is abhorrent like blackface, and like blackface, it has sadly not been brought to light until recently when the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (a renowned light opera troupe) faced immense scrutiny over their staging of the Mikado. They apologized and will be premiering a revised version this year.

As Christians in a school where following the Way of Jesus is of paramount importance, it is part of the duty to each other that we were commissioned to undertake at our Baptism to strive for the dignity of every human being and to work for justice and peace. We need to denounce racism in all its forms, lest we be like empty gongs and clanging cymbals as was proclaimed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this past Sunday (1 Cor. 13). And as people of integrity, regardless of our faith tradition or lack thereof, it is necessary to build a society that we know demands respect from each of its members for ALL of peoplekind.