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Many Virginians still want atonement for racist photo, actions

Reginald Stuart | 5/24/2019, 6 a.m.
Black Virginians are still debating and awaiting what bold steps Gov. Ralph S. Northam will take to revive and restore ...

Black Virginians are still debating and awaiting what bold steps Gov. Ralph S. Northam will take to revive and restore the once-strong link he maintained with African-American voters across the state, a wide range of interviews in recent weeks suggests.

“He has not been well received by many communities,” said Valerie Slater, executive director of the Richmond-based RISE for Youth, an advocacy group that promotes community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.

“Acknowledgment and apology are not enough,” she said. “Folks are waiting to see actions, not just pure words,” said Ms. Slater, echoing comments offered by others in various parts of the state.

For sure, Gov. Northam has not bowed to early demands that he step aside following his blackface debacle and confession in early February in an attempt to quell any damage to the state and the Democratic Party’s agenda to move Virginia into the political middle ground.

Staying in office has allowed Gov. Northam to ensure passage and vetoes of several pieces of legislation he and his Democratic peers had championed in the face of solid Republican legislative opposition.

Still, those who have stuck with the veteran physician during recent months say the governor needs to actively move ahead with healing wounds with the black community stemming from his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing a person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.

“If we make the governor resign his position, I don’t think it will change a single yearbook,” said Dr. Alvin Harris of Franklin, a 1978 graduate of Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, where Gov. Northam earned his medical degree.

“The most important thing the governor can do is just be himself and continue his term in an aggressive fashion,” Dr. Harris said. “He has to aggressively step forward, step up to the plate,” said Dr. Harris who provides medical care to inmates at the Deerfield Correctional Center in Southampton County.

Stepping up to the plate runs the gamut, those interviewed said. Some say he needs to atone for his association with such racist photographs and his confession that, as a 25-year-old medical resident in San Antonio in 1984, he dressed in blackface to portray Michael Jackson in a dance contest. They say Gov. Northam needs to declare he understands how raw the scars are still when people talk about Virginia’s evil past and the racism that permeates today’s society through government practices, policies, actions and inactions.

In detailed interviews with more than a dozen people, there was a consensus that Gov. Northam should visit black communities, apologize in person for the photo flap and have a dialogue with African-Americans about what he specifically plans to do to make things better for the African-American community on a broad range of issues.

There are hints Gov. Northam and some decision-making colleagues are taking steps suggesting they hear the calls.

Earlier this month, the governor’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, circulated a job posting for a director of diversity, equity and inclusion. The posting noted that the new position would report directly to Gov. Northam and Mr. Mercer “to effectively address the disparities that have historically and systematically impacted communities of color and other underrepresented communities …”