I grew up in Virginia in the 1980s. My high school’s sports teams were the Rebels, and our mascot was Johnny Reb, a cartoonish soldier holding a bugle and a Confederate flag. My high school was located on Old Lee Highway, named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and I lived in a neighborhood called Mosby Woods, named for Confederate Captain John Mosby. Growing up in the heart of the Confederacy, I never thought it was possible that Virginia would show itself to have a stronger moral compass on issues of race than Maine.
Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam is in very hot water after his medical school yearbook page turned up, featuring an image of someone dressed in a Ku Klux Klan hood standing beside another person in blackface, and Northam’s nickname listed as “Coonman” in his 1981 yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute. Though the medical school yearbook was published 34 years ago, political figures from both sides of the aisle are demanding he resign. Northam’s Democratic allies, including both Democratic U.S. senators from Virginia, the state Democratic Party and his own lieutenant governor, are calling for him to step down, as are prominent Democrats across the nation.
Democrats are right to demand Northam’s resignation. Thirty-four years is a long time, and people do change. But the imagery is so offensive that it would be impossible for him to ever successfully lead the state again, and even his own party knows this to be true.
But let’s put this in perspective: A Virginia governor was involved in racist imagery in a yearbook 34 years ago, and the entire political establishment demands he resign. But in Maine, a governor, while in office, labeled blacks and Hispanics “the enemy,” said we should shoot them, said black men are coming up the highway to kill us, sell drugs, and impregnate “young, white girls.” Then, when a member of the Legislature referred to his remarks as “racist,” the sitting governor, on tape, called him a “c#*&sucker,” and said he’d like to put a bullet between his eyes. And to my knowledge, not a single serious political figure from his party called on our former governor, Paul LePage, to resign.
How is that possible?
How could the state responsible for turning the tide of the Civil War at Gettysburg become so numb to the moral turpitude of racism?
Northam will end up disgraced, not from his record as governor but because of a terrible mistake he made in medical school, 34 years ago. By contrast, at no point along LePage’s racist odyssey has he been actually held responsible for his words and actions. He was never made the pariah he should have been, as an openly-racist governor of an American state.
In fact, the former governor is still something of a media darling. Unlike Virginia, where the newspapers have started to call for Northam to resign, the morning talk radio stations still book LePage to weigh in from his lounge chair in Florida with his nonsensical musings about Maine politics. In fact LePage was on the radio just this week, actually defending Northam during his latest appearance on WGAN, to the giggles of the sycophantic hosts.
Despite Joshua Chamberlain, the 20th Maine, Little Round Top, and Maine’s unique role in the Union victory in the Civil War, our state has an abominable record when it comes to race. Perhaps our extreme lack of diversity has made us collectively numb to issues of race, or perhaps Maine is a lot more like the Deep South than we are comfortable admitting.
For some reason, there is a market for racism in our politics. It’s something we should be collectively ashamed of, and, as we watch a state with such a twisted history like Virginia come to grips with the heinous racism in its past, we should reconsider the muted reaction to actual, current racism in our public arena, and start asking ourselves why we aren’t doing anything about it.