Why It Doesn’t Matter if Ralph Northam Wasn’t in That Racist Photo

Ralph Northam at a podium, with a camera visible in the foreground.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks with reporters at a press conference at the governor’s mansion on Saturday in Richmond, Virginia. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam says he never even bought his medical school yearbook. He could not have known, therefore, about the racist photo that appeared on his page—of two figures, one in blackface, one in Ku Klux Klan robes—neither of whom, he says, is him. It’s an engagingly feeble defense. Northam admits its weakness, just as he initially admitted being one of the two men in costume before revising his story. On Friday, he declared an intention to hire a private investigator to get to the bottom of the photo.

It’s at least theoretically possible that Eastern Virginia Medical School—which shut down its yearbook in 2014 because of other troubling neo-Confederate student images—has a problem with people planting racist photos on the pages of unwitting students. But it doesn’t seem likely. What’s more, there was an editorial process and no one flagged the photo, which might make us question just how unremarkable dressing up in blackface was to this cohort of students—or to Virginians. (On Wednesday the state’s Attorney General Mark Herring came forward to say he once donned a wig and “brown makeup” in the 1980s when he dressed up as a rapper.) It’s hard to know what to think or what the conventions were. A black EVMS classmate of Northam’s has said that “there is no way anyone would tolerate someone going to a party in blackface,” and that “if I had known about it then, it would have been an issue.” But a friend of Northam’s says he remembers seeing some people in blackface but not Northam, and the New York Times found that according to some white students, “nothing seemed out of the ordinary when their white classmates wore blackface.” Another person recalled the two costumes from a Halloween party, the theme of which was to dress as offensively and outrageously as possible. Yet another has said that no one much cared about the yearbook; it came out late and wasn’t a big deal.

But people like to claim that their social media profiles aren’t a big deal, either. Yes, there are limits to how much a yearbook “matters.” What a yearbook page can tell us, however—which matters greatly—is how someone sought to strategically situate themselves in their network. A yearbook page was a pre-Facebook way to present yourself as you wished to be seen. It is not, for that reason, straightforward or literal. Yearbooks are as aspirational as they are commemorative. And if we’ve learned anything from our recent crash course in American yearbooks, it’s that while some of these aspirations (to belong, to be cool) are perfectly understandable and deeply human, the routes some American men take to achieve them are, when you stare them in the face, extremely ugly.

Assuming that Northam supplied the sealed envelope with the photos for his yearbook, let’s examine what the rest of his page seemed pitched to convey. There’s a straight-on suit-and-tie portrait: serious, sincere. There’s the cowboy hat photo, leg up, shirt partly unbuttoned. There’s the Corvette photo with an easygoing Northam leaning against it in the shade. The elements this particular yearbook subject wished to convey are pretty legible: He wished to be considered a serious man, but also a country boy, but also a fun car guy, but also … and here we falter, because it’s hard to guess at what exactly the racist picture meant to this well-rounded self-fashioner.

The yearbook page.
Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School. Obtained by the Washington Post via Getty Images

This uncertainty can make us want to err on the side of sympathy: It was a different time. The rules have changed! Can’t we, as a culture, allow for personal growth? Making him step down as governor for one decades-old photo he might not even be in seems unfair.

I would like to be fair. For the sake of argument, let’s even take Northam at his word that he is not in that fourth photo (though the idea that he didn’t know about it is a bit much to accept). What, then, was he going for by including it? Here’s my guess: He was trying to seem edgy and funny and cool. And cool not to the public at large, but to his peers—what else, after all, is a yearbook but a kind of clubby memento, written in code? The quote that appears below the photo—“There are more old drunks than old doctors in the world so I think I’ll have another beer”—is supposed to amuse with its naughtiness. This might tell us something about how he intended the blackface photo to be received. The other photos on that page confirm him as serious, dreamy, outdoorsy. I suspect the final photo was there to round out the portrait of the physician as a young rascal. The response was supposed to be OMG I can’t believe he did that! This guy’s flouting the PC powers that be and having fun doing it. He’s taking a risk! We approve!

The trouble is that the “risk” of this kind of transgression was largely fictional. There were no actual consequences to this kind of risk-taking—certainly no consequences that mattered. “The powers that be” (as construed above) have usually had remarkably little institutional power against the suburban white boys whose future everyone protects. These “rebels” are just replicating the system they think they’re violating. That’s why defying political correctness is both so prevalent and so absurd: It’s a “rebellion” by those who already hold power, in order to maintain the status quo. It’s a reversal that is all too familiar, a dominant group acting up in order to remind itself who’s outside it.

I recognize that this mode of rebellion is more a currency than a principle. You trade transgression against a social norm for social rewards within a smaller group. And when you’re propping up your in-group, the last thing on your mind, really, is the people you’re trying to exclude. That’s why it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if Northam didn’t remember this photo—just as it was plausible that Brett Kavanaugh might not have remembered allegedly assaulting Christine Blasey Ford while his high school pal looked on, cackling. She wasn’t the point. The cruelty of toxic homosociality is selfish and raucous: It barely looks at, let alone remembers, the people it hurts. It does not understand the pain it causes: Northam’s tone-deaf explanation for why he couldn’t be in the photo isn’t that he wouldn’t have dreamed of doing such a thing; it’s that he remembers dressing up in blackface another time, as Michael Jackson, and so he’d remember this occasion too had he done it. (I’m glad he said that, honestly. It feels like an idiosyncratic but true account of how memory and guilt work.)

But does it matter that Northam wasn’t trying to trivialize lynchings or cause harm—that those were incidental to his desire to seem cool? Does it solve anything to point out that whether the motivation is hatred or indifference, the key ingredient to both is contempt? Is it better that Northam might not have described himself as racist while he chuckled at white men dressing up as minstrels and Klan members? Is it exonerating to a governor that a hatred of black people wasn’t uppermost in his mind while he was making a joke out of their murder and enslavement?

Not really, no. The real joke is that there was no risk to what he did—at least not then.

The targets of these displays are not supposed to see them: Renate Dolphin never found out about the “Renate Alumni” referenced in Kavanaugh’s yearbook because (contra Kavanaugh’s assertions that these were loving homages to a good friend) the whole point was to use her name—without her knowledge—to cement bonds between the guys. That’s what this “let’s-insult-women-and-minorities” bravado is about, and its function isn’t rebellious. It simply confirms the quiet codes of power and dominance. It’s agreeing not be the killjoy in the group. It signals a willingness to play along with power, celebrate its excesses, affirm its essential privacy. And it’s disquieting—and should be disqualifying—to see that in a governor.

It’s popular, these days, to insist that the rules have changed. That suddenly people are being held to standards that didn’t exist before, and that this is all rather unfair. Baloney. The reason that photo appeared in Northam’s yearbook in the first place is because it was violating a social standard, one that was apparently too flimsy to fully take hold in America. If you want to look edgy, blackface seemed like a pretty safe bet, and Northam took it, expecting it to cost him nothing.

No one had the power to exact payment at Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1984, and Ralph Northam knew that. But nothing is free forever. At the time, Northam undertook the risk—thinking it wasn’t one—and he reaped the reward. It’s only fair that the price of that bravado has come due.