Gov. Ralph Northam (D) recently called Virginia, a “state of contradictions and complexities” describing the state’s racist past and present, juxtaposed to its unprecedented achievements of emancipation to the election of the nation’s first Black governor. He said Virginians should acknowledge “the wrongs and the evils done in the past and the present, because, while we cannot change the past, we can use it and learn from it. When we know more, we can do more. As your governor,” he promised, “I will do more.”
Northam spoke last weekend at the 1619-2019 Commemoration of the first landing of enslaved Africans at Fort Comfort, now Ft. Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. He spoke to an enormous crowd that seemed unsure of the “contractions and complexities” to which he was referring. Earlier this year, Northam was accused of being a racist when photos showing individuals in blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes found in his medical school yearbook were published in a magazine. He hasn’t explained the photos after first taking responsibility, then later disavowing them.
Since then, Northam, who refused to resign despite fierce pressure, said he wanted to focus the rest of his term on racial equity. And the applause throughout his speech is an indication he is moving in the right direction.
The contradictions and complexities Northam highlighted, show how Virginia takes steps forward and backward regarding civil rights. “We are a state,” he said, “that for too long has told a false story of ourselves.”
Northam received a standing ovation when he announced he’d signed an executive directive that morning “to establish a commission on African American education.”
“This commission,” he said, “will review our educational standards, instructional content and resources used to teach African-American history in our commonwealth. We want to make sure our students develop a full and comprehensive understanding of the African-American voices that contribute to our story.”
But that’s not all, Northam said. He wants to remove historical racism and discrimination that have locked in racial disparities in education attainment, in-school suspension rates and maternal and neonatal mortality for Black adult mothers. He included disparities in the prisons due to mass incarceration and he wants to improve businesses practices for small women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses. Racism and discrimination are “still with us,” he said, “and Black oppression has always existed in this country.”
“As we reckon with the painful legacy of Virginia’s racist past and acknowledge that it continues to shape our present, we can and must continue to act to improve the future,” Northam concluded.
We will watch what happens in Virginia, with the hope of not witnessing more contradictions.