Having bumbled his way through a racial scandal mainly of his own creation, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, D, promised in February to elevate racial equity to the top of his agenda. Two months later, he has undertaken some deeds and made some gestures to fulfill that goal, all of them subverted by an unanswered question: If, as Northam says, he was neither the individual dressed as a Ku Klux Klansman nor the one in blackface in the photograph on his medical-school yearbook page, then how did that image get there, and whom does it depict?
Northam himself pledged to get to the bottom of that mystery, saying he would hire a private investigator to unearth the truth. Since then, nothing. If such a detective was hired, he or she was not identified. If an investigation was undertaken at the governor’s behest, its results are unknown.
Separately, the governor’s alma mater, Eastern Virginia Medical School, commissioned an external investigation led by Richard Cullen, a pillar of Richmond’s legal community. Results of that investigation, whose focus is believed to include the genesis of the notorious photo, are expected relatively soon.
It would be nice to think Cullen will clear up the mystery of the yearbook photo - specifically, whether Northam is in fact one of its subjects (in which case he lied when he denied it) or, if he isn’t, who is, and how the picture came to appear on his page. In the absence of that information, Northam, whatever he may achieve in office, will not remove the taint on his name.
The governor, having served in the state legislature and as lieutenant governor, entered his current office with a reputation as close to unblemished as most politicians could hope for. Yet after a successful first year - he expanded Medicaid coverage and landed Amazon’s second headquarters - he laid waste to his image by admitting, then denying, being the yearbook figure in blackface - and then confessing to having applied shoe polish to his cheeks as an entrant in a dance contest. His to-ing and fro-ing, all in the course of 24 hours, was a credibility-shredding fiasco.
Since then, his strategy has been to soldier on, refusing widespread calls for his resignation while seeking to make good on his promise to prioritize racial healing and focus on racial disparities.
In recent days, he has moved to stop suspending the licenses of drivers who fail to pay court costs, a practice that hurts poor and minority communities disproportionately, and to require the state to monitor an impending ban on handheld cellphone use by drivers to ensure that minorities are not targeted for enforcement. He also signed a measure establishing a state advisory board charged with promoting issues critical to African-Americans.
As a lawmaker and lieutenant governor, Northam’s record on race was good, and he enjoyed broad minority support in winning the governorship. Since the scandal, a majority of black Virginians have told pollsters they continue to support him. Still, the public deserves a full accounting of the yearbook photo. To date, that has been lacking.