I know I speak for many Democrats when I say that I was beyond disappointed when the yearbook photos of Governor Ralph Northam were released, revealing his unexpected racist past. It can be easy to only expect the worst of our opposition, so seeing damaging actions come from within our own party can be crushing.
On Friday, a photo from Northam’s yearbook was leaked with a man in blackface standing next to someone in a KKK hood. Northam issued an apology for his racism that same day, but later claimed that he is not any of the people pictured.
Northam has accomplished many great things in his time as Governor of Virginia. He fought to expand women’s rights to abortions, restructured the budget, and passed coastal environmental reforms. These policy successes shouldn’t be forgotten. His political record may be something to applaud. But in light of these photos—in light of this explicit and undeniable racism—Governor Northam must resign. His resignation is not only what’s best for Virginia, but is necessary for the future of the Democratic Party.
I respect his initial apology. It is incredibly difficult to own up to and recognize harmful mistakes. Perhaps Northam, as a person, is redeemable and has grown out of whatever immature impulses or ignorance led him to use blackface.
Despite this, his denial of his involvement in the photos after having already apologized has further and irreversibly broken the trust between him and his constituents. Northam’s past and the way he has handled the negative press associated with these photos prove that he has alienated the people of Virginia and no longer possesses the authority to effectively govern.
Even if he has matured as a person, it by no means qualifies him to hold an elected position, nonetheless serve a state that has a powerful history of racism and of denying African American people their agency.
It is easy to read headlines and become cynical about the future of our government. Everyone has their own negative baggage (albeit some worse than others). But I remain hopeful that there are a plethora of elected officials who are genuine and true to not only the Democratic platform, but also to their individual morals. We have to make room for politicians who don’t have any past of racism or bigotry and allow them to lead the party in the right direction moving forward. Northam’s actions stand in antithesis to our Democratic values of inclusion and equality—values that we must prioritize. We are the party of diversity, and as such we cannot tolerate leaders who abandon the core tenets of what we stand for.
In this new era of deep polarization, it is crucial that we maintain moral integrity. Trump may have normalized racism, sexism, and xenophobia in the Republican party. But, as Democrats, we hold a responsibility to reject all instances of this ignorance to preserve our principles. We can’t forget that, even if it means criticizing (and at times, rejecting) our own.
I don’t think Northam is the worst politician out there. And he doesn’t have to be. As the Democratic Party, we need to hold our leaders to the utmost standards. As a party that is actively fighting against the negative reforms being pushed forward by the Trump administration, we cannot give in and betray our values.
That’s why we, Penn Democrats, have joined the chorus of Democratic leaders calling for the resignation of Governor Northam. We must hold ourselves and our fellow partisans accountable, because bigotry knows no party lines. If both parties were to adhere to this standard, we’d eradicate hate from our political landscape.
Moving forward, we need to set high expectations for our country’s leaders. Because until then, and only then, will we start to see the moral clarity that is necessary to vocalize our concerns and resolve the issues we care about.
TAMARA WURMAN is a College freshman studying Political Science and Communications. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the director of communications for Penn Democrats. She is also a DP associate photo editor and design associate.