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'You can run but you can’t hide from your casual racism'

UNDER FIRE: Ralph Northam, left, accompanied by his wife, Pam during a conference last week

TELL YOU what, I’ve never laughed so much as I laughed last weekend in covering the case of the Virginia governor who confessed to having been in a photograph which depicted two men, one blackfaced and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan hoodie. A photo taken from back in his college days 35 years ago.

You see, you can run but you can’t hide from your casual and explicit racism. Not forever. One day it will come back to haunt you or bite you sharply on the bum. Not least if you have the temerity to subsequently seek public office. You would have thought by now that all these racists would know it, but apparently not. Things, as they say, will come up to bump. And so it is with Ralph Northam.

Northam nearly got away with it. He had managed to quietly retire the racist behaviour of his youth, zimmer frame and all, to the osteoporosis of the past.

Especially to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for the Virginia gubernatorial and, where once upon a time Virginia candidates would have been quizzed on their past views on black people (Virginia being one of those MasonDixon line states where they weren’t afraid to raise the confederate flags above the state house and where senior white politicians did not shirk from calling black people by the “N” word).


But those days are gone. And, in this case, there was no reason for the Party or the electorate to suspect that Northam had any skeletons, or white bedsheets with holes cut out for eyes, in his wardrobe of photographs. Not to talk of a can of black shoe polish to boot. He is supposed to be an educated man after all, not your regular ignorant racist.

He was at medical school at the time of the incriminating photograph, and surely, when you’re at medical school you should see and know for yourself that differences between the races are superficial and insignificant and that black people are not three-fifths of a human being as the white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan have long believed. And surely, when you’re a medical student you would not want all your fellow students to see how ignorant you are by displaying such racist ignorance so publicly on your yearbook page.

In fact, the past came as such a surprise to Northam, that when a journalist produced the offensive and incriminating photograph as evidence in a news conference, the unwitting governor immediately admitted that he was one of the two men in that photograph, but he wouldn’t say which.

Caught red-handed he might still have gotten away with it if he had paraphrased a leaf out of Shaggy’s tune, It Wasn’t Me:

“It wasn’t me/Journalist came in and caught me redhanded/Being racist with a creep next door/We may as well have been both butt naked/Banging on the bathroom floor/How could I forget that I had Blackfaced or KKK’d/How could I forget that I was governor of Virginia state.”

Never mind Shaggy, what everybody wanted to know was ‘which’. Which was the governor in the photo – the one with the KKK hood or the one with the shoe polish?

The which is, of course, crucial. It’s bad enough mocking black people by smearing your face with black shoe polish, but surely, it is even worse if you are wearing a Ku Klux Klan hoodie. Either way, I would have thought your position as governor is untenable once the photograph of you surfaces, but to what degree is the question.

To what degree will you be able to resign from your job with some semblance of dignity. It is to that extent that the question of “who are you?” (the KKK racist or just the blackface racist) becomes pivotal.

If you are just the blackface guy, you might be able to argue that it was different in those days and that even the BBC used to celebrate the blackface in The Black and White Minstrel Show and that Lenny Henry used to be a part of that.

You might just about get away with that argument and the statement which he made that he is not the same person today as he was then.

It wouldn’t save your job, but it would at least save your wife and children the opprobrium of public disgust that would surely follow them if you were the bloke with the white hood on with holes cut out for your eyes.

The governor must have known this when he repeatedly declined to state quite categorically which of the two miscreants in that photo he was.

His wife clearly knew the importance of “Who do you think you are?”, too, because within 24 hours of that initial confession by the governor he was back in front of the media’s cameras denying that he was either man in the photo.

You see why I was rolling around in the aisles with tears in my eyes as I roared with laughter.

Honestly, in all my years, I have never heard such a U-turn from anybody in the space of 24 hours. I have never come across anybody who one day admits to a disgusting act and then the next day denies that it was him. Honestly, I had to reach out for my Shaggy CD again to find a paraphrase:
“But they caught me on the photo (it wasn’t me)/Blackface on the photo (it wasn’t me)/ KKK on the photo (it wasn’t me)/They even caught me on camera (it wasn’t me).


For this denial, this second appearance in 24 hours in front of the media, the governor’s wife (clearly the power blind the throne) stood by his side to ensure that he didn’t drop any more clangers.

She may even have scripted his denial, not least the part where he has to admit that even though he is not in that photo, he has blackfaced before (in case there are any other photos out there) at a fancy dress competition in which, apparently, he went as Michael Jackson. One quick-witted journalist immediately challenged the Governor to “moon dance” a la Michael, to prove it. Alas, his wife quickly intervened and told her husband that that would be “inappropriate’”.

Like I say, I’ve never laughed so much…

The governor is clinging on to his job like his life depended on it. I wouldn’t stake my life on his survival.

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