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How Ralph Northam is spending his Black History Month

The African-Americans of his state have done a whole lot of forgiving since the first enslaved people were brought there centuries ago

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has been doing a lot of learning this month — about blackface, apologies and redemption. African-Americans who believe he should stay in his post are used to making political compromises to survive, Curtis writes. (Alex Edelman/Getty Images)
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has been doing a lot of learning this month — about blackface, apologies and redemption. African-Americans who believe he should stay in his post are used to making political compromises to survive, Curtis writes. (Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

OPINION — The lessons of this February’s Black History Month commemorations have already veered far beyond the usual ones that begin and end by quoting a snippet of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech — the part about judging folks not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. A new curriculum is being written in real time, affecting real-life politicians and their constituents. And Virginia is hardly the only state not ready for the big exam.

Of course, the politician in question, Gov. Ralph Northam, has been learning as he goes — about blackface, about apologies and about redemption.

It is no surprise that those most qualified to teach forgiveness have been the African-American citizens of his state. They have had lots of practice since the first enslaved people were brought to Virginia 400 years ago. A Washington Post poll shows that most believe he should stay in his post and do the job he was elected to do. Part of that may be “better the devil you know.” But it is also clear in several stories published about his own history that the motivation of those who think Northam has made the right decision in choosing not to exit quietly is more complicated than that.

Friends of every race who have known Northam since he grew up on Virginia’s Eastern shore paint the picture of a man who was a good, fair and friendly classmate in a high school that changed from white to majority black after desegregation was finally implemented years and lawsuits after 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education. That decision led to massive official resistance to integration. Virginia closed its public schools rather than comply, leaving white students to enter segregated academies and black student to fend for themselves.

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The personal and public kindnesses of Northam through high school and then college at Virginia Military Institute stood out for many who spoke with reporters. They are saddened by the caricature that has spawned outrage and Saturday Night Live skits. Reverend King also once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” Though that still holds true in many communities, Northam and his wife attend a church congregation with mostly black worshippers, led by a black pastor.

That’s not saying the embattled governor deserves a medal for acting like a human being. It is understandable that some of those voters who supported him feel betrayed. When Northam said he did not become aware until a few years ago of the pain of blackface — and when Attorney General Mark Herring confessed to his own moment imitating rap artists all too authentically — it was difficult to believe that they reached adulthood that clueless.

But then it wasn’t.

Teachers, schools and parents are still letting children of all races down when they skip over inconvenient history, when textbooks call enslaved people “workers,” “immigrants” and “indentured servants,” as Northam himself did on CBS and was quickly corrected by Gayle King. The morning anchor, who is African-American, would not have ascended to her prestigious job with so many blank spaces where knowledge should be.

But it is still possible for white Americans to become a governor or attorney general or a CEO and have no idea about African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian-Americans and Native Americans, their histories, contributions and struggles, and the advantage that gave white citizens. It helps explain the inequities in wealth, housing, education and job opportunities whose effects persist long after slavery and Jim Crow. There is a reason some die-hard Cleveland Indians fans cling to the grinning Chief Wahoo and Covington Catholic school boys and their teachers thought war whoops and tomahawk chops were harmless fun.

Which brings me, and all of us, to the president of the United States and Republican politicians in Virginia and beyond, who are enjoying the spectacle — popcorn in hand — of Democrats imploding in a state that had been trending blue.

While Northam, however clumsily, is calling for learning and healing, the GOP looks eager to shut it and the governor down. It’s not that they are champions of liberty, justice and equal opportunity for all. In fact, when Donald Trump, looking to take advantage, took to Twitter to sow racial division by exploiting the scandals — and to compare the Democratic Party’s treatment of Northam, Herring and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who has denied sexual assault charges by two women — Twitter roared back, reminding the president of his own road to the White House, paved with birtherism and racist insults.

There is plenty of evidence, from housing discrimination lawsuits that padded the Trump fortune, to administration policy that separated parents from children and then lost track of them, to a recent possible reference to the Trail of Tears to score points on an opponent (and the current president’s worship of that policy’s father, President Andrew Jackson, for whom the removal of Native Americans from their land was a priority).

Republicans may pull Iowa Rep. Steve King from committees as payment for his vocal support of white nationalist ideals, but the congressman remains in his U.S. House seat.

The African-Americans who want to give Northam another chance are used to the compromise needed to survive. In this case, a governor who champions voting rights and Medicaid expansion looks pretty good compared with a GOP moving in the other direction. And most Virginians of any race realize that Republicans, like Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, managing editor of a 1968 VMI yearbook sprinkled with blackface photos and racist slurs, have less than pristine racial pasts.

Every February, someone asks why we need a Black History Month. And every February, and the rest of the year, comes the proof of the price each American pays for playing politics instead of putting aside the inconvenient conversations that may cause pain, but ultimately will keep the country from making the same costly mistakes over and over again.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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