Many Virginians still want atonement for racist photo, actions

Reginald Stuart | 5/24/2019, 6 a.m.
Black Virginians are still debating and awaiting what bold steps Gov. Ralph S. Northam will take to revive and restore ...

Black Virginians are still debating and awaiting what bold steps Gov. Ralph S. Northam will take to revive and restore the once-strong link he maintained with African-American voters across the state, a wide range of interviews in recent weeks suggests.

“He has not been well received by many communities,” said Valerie Slater, executive director of the Richmond-based RISE for Youth, an advocacy group that promotes community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.

“Acknowledgment and apology are not enough,” she said. “Folks are waiting to see actions, not just pure words,” said Ms. Slater, echoing comments offered by others in various parts of the state.

For sure, Gov. Northam has not bowed to early demands that he step aside following his blackface debacle and confession in early February in an attempt to quell any damage to the state and the Democratic Party’s agenda to move Virginia into the political middle ground.

Staying in office has allowed Gov. Northam to ensure passage and vetoes of several pieces of legislation he and his Democratic peers had championed in the face of solid Republican legislative opposition.

Still, those who have stuck with the veteran physician during recent months say the governor needs to actively move ahead with healing wounds with the black community stemming from his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing a person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.

“If we make the governor resign his position, I don’t think it will change a single yearbook,” said Dr. Alvin Harris of Franklin, a 1978 graduate of Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, where Gov. Northam earned his medical degree.

“The most important thing the governor can do is just be himself and continue his term in an aggressive fashion,” Dr. Harris said. “He has to aggressively step forward, step up to the plate,” said Dr. Harris who provides medical care to inmates at the Deerfield Correctional Center in Southampton County.

Stepping up to the plate runs the gamut, those interviewed said. Some say he needs to atone for his association with such racist photographs and his confession that, as a 25-year-old medical resident in San Antonio in 1984, he dressed in blackface to portray Michael Jackson in a dance contest. They say Gov. Northam needs to declare he understands how raw the scars are still when people talk about Virginia’s evil past and the racism that permeates today’s society through government practices, policies, actions and inactions.

In detailed interviews with more than a dozen people, there was a consensus that Gov. Northam should visit black communities, apologize in person for the photo flap and have a dialogue with African-Americans about what he specifically plans to do to make things better for the African-American community on a broad range of issues.

There are hints Gov. Northam and some decision-making colleagues are taking steps suggesting they hear the calls.

Earlier this month, the governor’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, circulated a job posting for a director of diversity, equity and inclusion. The posting noted that the new position would report directly to Gov. Northam and Mr. Mercer “to effectively address the disparities that have historically and systematically impacted communities of color and other underrepresented communities …”

Before announcing the new job, Gov. Northam was on the road promoting budget amendments with big impacts on African-Americans, including one that would eliminate the suspension of driver’s licenses for motorists with unpaid court fines and costs.

In late March, he announced he was ramping up spending to modernize Central State Hospital, a sprawling mental hospital outside Petersburg that housed African-American patients for decades after the Civil War and still operates as an overcrowded facility for people in custody for psychiatric reasons.

He also directed state education officials to lead a “deep dive” into how public schools teach the nation’s racial history.

“The curriculum we’re using in our K-12 public education system is both inadequate and also inaccurate,” he told the Associated Press.

“I feel like he has been trying, but I don’t know if he’s trying to be politically correct or authentic,” said Daryl V. Fraser, president of the Richmond Association of Black Social Workers.

“One day it’s you. One day, it’s not you,” Mr. Fraser said of the governor’s claims about the racist photos on his EVMS yearbook page. “It’s still hard to clarify,” he said. “You need to own up.”

Mr. Fraser said he initially was upset with the governor.

“I was angry. The picture was beyond an insult to our community. Today, I’m indifferent,” he said, asserting like others that “the burden of prejudice and discrimination is not on black people. White people have to hold each other accountable.”

Dr. Ravi K. Perry, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Gov. Northam has never said “I’m sorry” to black Virginians, a first step toward atonement.

While people suggested the governor take certain actions, there is a strong general feeling that he is in a position to take a multitude of positive actions aimed at improving racial equality and equity for black Virginians.

Some steps could be “symbolic,” Dr. Perry said, like renaming Jefferson Davis Highway for someone other than a Confederate, to more substantive actions like appointing a state Board of Education that would require every Virginia public school student to take classes on race and ethnicity.

For sure, many people are busy working on lists to give to Gov. Northam with recommendations and plans ranging from funding critical needs for public schools and colleges, expanding early voting in Virginia, creating an anti-poverty work group and overhauling the state’s program to assist minority contractors to eliminating the state holiday honoring Confederate generals and appointing more African-Americans to state boards, commissions and councils.

Among those saying they are working on an action agenda for the governor are the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, whose members met with Gov. Northam just after the racist picture began circulating in February, the Virginia Black Leaders Roundtable and Creative Solutions, a group of politically active seasoned citizens based in Richmond.

Bernice E. Travers, president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters and coordinator of the Virginia Black Leaders Roundtable, said to achieve atonement with black voters, “he (Gov. Northam) needs to come back out and face the African-American community.”

“He needs to talk of what he’s going to do … without fear,” Ms. Travers said. “The governor needs to do something to correct social and economic injustice. The longer he avoids the black community, the worse it will get.”

Former Richmond City Councilman E. Martin “Marty” Jewell has met with several groups on action plans for the governor. He said “atonement” has many meanings, ranging from ethical to spiritual to philosophical.

“We (black Virginians) need to show him what atonement looks like,” Mr. Jewell said, when asked how he would describe and define it. Addressing the growing lists he and others have put together would surely help, he said. The fragility of the trust Gov. Northam now has with the black community has created a “wedge” that can be used to “get what we can,” he said.

He said one of the governor’s priorities should be “fixing” the state’s SWaM program used to certify and award state contracts to small, women-owned and minority-owned businesses. According to state reports, only 5.9 percent of all state contracts were awarded to minority vendors in 2017-18. In dollar terms, of the $6.56 billion in goods and services purchased by the state that fiscal year, $385.7 million was spent with minority-owned companies.

Mr. Jewell said the various groups coming up with recommendation have more in common than some people may think. “At some point, we may see the benefit of merging our efforts,” he said.

High on her list of symbolic steps Gov. Northam could take would be removal of the Confederate statues in Richmond, Ms. Travers said.

Dr. Harris said atonement would include Gov. Northam visiting the two historically black institutions of higher ed supported by the state — Virginia State and Norfolk State universities — having a face-to-face meeting with leaders of each and asking what they need to become first-rate institutions, then pledging directly what he is going to do.

The governor’s unexpected blackface debacle “gave us an opportunity to speak to the issue,” said Norfolk attorney Paul B. Hedges, executive director of Virginians for Reconciliation, a group started in 2018 and publicly launched in January by Gov. Northam and former Republican Gov. Robert F. “Bob” McDonnell, who has been marred by his own scandal since leaving office in 2014.

Other government, business, faith and community leaders are involved in the reconciliation group, which called for 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first Africans in Virginia, to be a year of racial reconciliation and understanding.

“We welcome (discussing reconciliation),” said Mr. Hedges, noting that Gov. Northam had been associated with the group far earlier than February, when the turmoil began.

Ms. Slater said atonement should involve Gov. Northam taking a more active role in the state’s juvenile rehabilitation programs.

“If he truly wants to be good,” she said, “move the conversation squarely into the communities of the families and those impacted children with the greatest need.”