Astead W. Herndon, New York Times, June 14, 2021
Alonzo Jones, a Black mayor in Southern Virginia, was used to the playbook of a white politician facing allegations of racism.
So when Gov. Ralph Northam visited his town after a racist photograph was discovered on the governor’s medical school yearbook page, Mr. Jones expected more of the same: a requisite visit to a Black church, a news conference with Black allies, and promises of growth moving forward.
Even so, Mr. Jones agreed to a private meeting. “What can we do for you?” he recalled asking Mr. Northam.
“What can I do for you?” the governor shot back.
And soon, to Mr. Jones’s surprise, Mr. Northam began making the kinds of statewide changes that the mayor suggested he should do.
On a national level, Mr. Northam may forever be enshrined as the Democrat who defied calls to resign in the face of unquestionable racism — a photograph on his yearbook page that showed one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume. But among Black political leaders and elected officials in Virginia, he is set to leave office with another legacy: becoming the most racially progressive governor in the state’s history, whose focus on uplifting Black communities since the 2019 scandal will have a tangible and lasting effect.
Mr. Northam’s arc, from political pariah denounced by nearly every national Democrat to a popular incumbent with support from Black elected officials and even progressive activists, is a complex story of personal growth and political pressure, a testament to how crisis can also provide opportunity. However, it would not have been possible without the Black Virginians who rallied around him even as they stared down immense pressure to help force him from office — Black staff members who stayed in the administration, a Legislative Black Caucus that chose to focus on policy goals rather than resignation, and a Black activist community that quickly followed the lawmakers’ strategic lead.
The result is a reshaped Virginia. Since 2019, and aided by a Democratic sweep of both state legislative houses, the commonwealth has become the first state in the South to abolish the death penalty, allocated more than $300 million to the state’s financially struggling Black colleges, passed sweeping police reform measures, and created the country’s first state cabinet-level position for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Mr. Northam, who agreed to an extensive interview for this article, bluntly admitted that the 2019 scandal changed the political priorities of his administration. He also said that it sent him on an ongoing personal journey of re-educating himself about race, racism and whiteness.
“I made it very clear from when this happened, that racial equity was going to be a top priority for the remainder of our administration,” Mr. Northam said, citing the elimination of the death penalty as an example.
“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 added.
Bernice Travers, a longtime community activist in Richmond who is Black, said that Mr. Northam’s admission that the scandal had changed his priorities was quite painful. She said it sent an implicit signal to the Black people who helped elect him.
Using Black staff members as a go-between, elected officials and activists said they began to hear from Mr. Northam’s administration the same line he had given Mr. Jones in Danville: “What can we do for you?” And a community that had been embarrassed and ashamed began to see the moment as a window of opportunity.
Ms. Travers was among the first to show public support for Mr. Northam, joining well-known Black activists and clergy members in a news conference urging Virginia to give him another chance. Ms. Travers said they were met with condemnation from other activists — particularly younger ones.
She said what happened would serve as a lesson for a younger generation of Black activists: There are times when the carrot is more powerful than the stick.
“We didn’t see ourselves as being used,” Ms. Travers said. “We saw ourselves as looking at an opportunity to get this man to create some laws and programs that can move Black people forward.”
If the Ralph Northam of today sounds like someone who has just completed a reading list of popular anti-racist literature, it’s because he has. He invokes the book “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the 1989 essay about white privilege. He says he was profoundly changed by the documentary “13th,” which focuses on racial bias in the criminal justice system.
The newfound interest in history extends to Virginia’s intense debate over Confederate statues, which is now forever linked to the deadly violence in Charlottesville in 2017. Since 2019, Mr. Northam has removed several Confederate references and statues from state parks, replaced a state holiday honoring Confederate generals with one intended to increase voting access, and added more than 25 historical markers for Black history in Virginia.
Wes Bellamy, a former vice mayor of Charlottesville and a Black activist who rallied behind Mr. Northam, said the governor’s message of personal growth was commendable, but should still be viewed through the lens of politics. That’s why he focuses on the impact of Mr. Northam’s policy, he said.
Mr. Northam, for his part, says that he’s a changed man, and that he understands that arenas like health care, education, business and voting rights “are all just full of racism and oppression.”
Mr. Bellamy said Black political leaders saw another lesson. “A white person used their privilege to stay in office,” he said. But to make change, “Black people used their power.”