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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam Talks Racist Photo Scandal and How It 'Opened My Eyes'

·4-min read

Chris Kleponis/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Gov. Ralph Northam

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is opening up about the 2019 furor surrounding a racist photo in his school yearbook - which nearly led him to leave office - saying the experience instead changed his life and the state for the better.

"It has really opened my eyes," Northam, 61, told The New York Times in an interview published on Monday. "It made me a better-educated and more-informed person."

The Times' interview with Northam, the state's Democratic leader, was published along with a story about how Black lawmakers and community leaders across Virginia had strategically embraced his quest to better understand systemic racism and worked with him to pass new laws increasing racial equity.

In February 2019, a photo from Northam's page in his medical school yearbook showed two men posing for a photograph: one man in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan uniform.

The photo drew swift, widespread condemnation and Northam was, in the words of one report, on "political death watch" after acknowledging and apologizing for being in the photo.

In a surprise reversal, however, he later said it was "definitely not me" in the photo though he admitted to previously wearing blackface at another event while dressing as Michael Jackson.

Northam resisted the calls for his resignation, including from future President Joe Biden - a choice expanded on in the new Times report.

He maintains to this day that he doesn't know if he is either man seen in the photograph.

Since 2019, he and Black state leaders maintain to the Times, the governor has found himself on a path of personal reeducation and redemption.

"If what happened in February 2019 had not happened, I'm not sure if my eyes would have been open to the point where I went back and looked at the history, and how many people of color had been executed, and why capital punishment was being used," he told the Times.

Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Gov. Ralph Northam

Northam is limited from consecutive terms in office and did not elaborate on plans for the future in his interview with the Times, although it's possible for him to run again in the future.

In the last two years as governor, Northam has made a number of policy changes to quell systemic racism - something he says he learned more about through a statewide listening tour and by reading books about white privilege, including Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility and Peggy McIntosh's Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Northam also says the documentary 13th was "very powerful" and "was probably what put things in perspective for me."

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Bernice Travers, an activist in Richmond, Virginia, told the Times that the local Black community "didn't see ourselves as being used," when they embraced Northam's apologies and efforts to redeem himself.

"We saw ourselves as looking at an opportunity to get this man to create some laws and programs that can move Black people forward," she said.

Steve Helber/AP/Shutterstock Gov. Ralph Northam

The governor made Virginia the first southern U.S. state to outlaw the death penalty in March, redirected more than $300 million to Black colleges across the state, created the country's first-ever cabinet-level position for a diversity officer and earlier this year signed a number of new laws reforming state police.

"Doing things like that make me feel good about what I've done," Northam said of the legislation abolishing capital punishment. "But is it vindication for what I did, or what I've been through? I don't really look at it like that."

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He told the Times that "the more we know about our history, the better," while denouncing conservative efforts around the country to limit how schools teach about race and racism as a "dog whistle" being used "to frighten people."

"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," Northam said.

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