Lame-duck Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam had some poignant words to share the night of Nov. 15 as he visited his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, to address the Corps of Cadets.
He spoke about how enrollment 44 years ago as a 17-year-old “rat” (VMI jargon for a first-year cadet) cost him his hair and his girlfriend at the time, but set him on a leadership path that would see him become the second VMI graduate in history to serve as Virginia’s governor.
He told the gathered cadets that VMI provided him with the foundation for this future — but it wasn’t so apparent to him at the time what the long-term benefits were going to be. He spent his early months doing pushups, shining his shoes and brass, and doing everything he could not to be singled out.
Looking back, he reflected on how his skin color made that task — not standing out, not drawing unwanted attention — easier for him than it was for others. This was a factor he never spared a second thought on when he was 17.
“I now realize that there was a lot going on around me that I didn’t recognize,” he said. “The world is filled with people who are different from me. People who think differently from me. Who experience things differently from me.”
Some of those remarks in his speech might have had some additional personal meaning. He imagined traveling back in time to have a talk with his 17-year-old self. “I would tell him, ‘Ralph, you have a lot to learn about the world.’”
Because of young Ralph’s choices, older, wiser Ralph Northam will never be able to participate in a discussion about race without summoning the specter of his own race-related scandal.
In February 2019, a conservative website published a photo from Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page that showed a smiling person in blackface standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan costume.
Northam at first apologized for being in the photo, but later retracted that statement, claiming he wasn’t in the photo after all. He had no explanation for why it was on his yearbook page.
According to an investigation conducted by the medical school, when the photo first surfaced, Northam could not remember whether he was one of the people who posed for it, and so his staff crafted an apology that he signed off on, even though it was tantamount to an admission.
That investigation concluded that Northam most likely was not in the offensive photo, but unsurprisingly, no one else would admit to being in the picture either, or admit to knowing who was.
The independent report’s support for Northam’s retraction didn’t help him all that much, because he had confessed to another college-age incident in which he wore blackface to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
Northam resisted calls to resign and weathered the scandal. His political career post-governor will be the proof of the pudding as to whether he’s really put it behind him.
Perhaps that very ignominy focused his attention and motivated him to actions he not would otherwise have so fervently embraced. In a way, in light of his own brush with problematic behavior and its consequences, imagining the things a figure like Northam would want to say to his younger self about sexism, racism and tolerance gave other parts of his talk at VMI more poignancy and weight.
“It didn’t occur to me to ask, who is that a statue of? When was it erected? Why is that person being honored? Who decided that we should all salute him?” Northam said.
He did not cite by name the statue of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson that was removed from the VMI campus in December 2020 after standing there for 108 years. The statue went to a new home at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War in the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park.
The Roanoke Times reported in June 2020 about Black alumni of VMI coming forward to discuss the school’s problems with racism and prejudice. They spoke about being made to salute the statue and filed a petition to see the Jackson statue removed. After a similar report by The Washington Post in October 2020, Northam ordered an independent investigation.
The resulting report detailed many egregious problems with the treatment of minorities and women but also recommended that the school retain its important traditions, such as the rat line and the cadet court, which Northam once headed.
In April, VMI installed retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins as its first Black superintendent after Northam pressured the previous superintendent to step down. The college took further steps to distance itself from Jackson, removing his names from campus buildings. Jackson, a slave owner, was a VMI professor.
In his Nov. 15 speech, the governor talked about all the energy wasted in the 1990s as VMI fought to keep women from being admitted, a battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Faced with the recent complaints of racism, Northam, Wins and the VMI Board of Visitors did not want the school to go down that same combative path.
“When I saw the Confederate flag, it didn’t occur to me to ask, what does flying the Confederate flag, or playing “Dixie,” symbolize? Why are we glorifying the Lost Cause?” Northam said to the newest crop of cadets. “I’ve come to understand what a large and diverse world we live in — and how much the world looks to our country for honest leadership.”
He stressed how important it is for Virginia’s future as a business-friendly state to welcome diversity, and to foster “a Commonwealth that opens its arms to people from around the world.” Anyone who toils for economic development in Southwest Virginia will second that statement in a heartbeat.
The amount of credit he deserves might be debatable, but Northam is the one who got to announce Amazon’s momentous choice to locate HQ2 in Arlington (not to mention Traditional Medicinals’ choice to build in Franklin County) so he leaves office with legitimate business bonafides.
His Republican successor, Glenn Youngkin, might disagree with many of the decisions Northam made while in office. Yet Youngkin would do well to heed this particular bit of advice.