Ralph Northam Will Launch A “Listening Tour” About Race Amid Blackface Scandal

Plans to recalibrate the governor’s legislative agenda to focus on race are coming into focus.

As Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam continues to resist calls to step down over the racist photo on his medical school yearbook page, he and his advisers are close to finalizing plans for a statewide “listening tour” to engage different communities in conversations about race.

Additionally, a source close to the governor said Northam is telling people privately that if the commonwealth’s legislature puts a bill on his desk that provides the authority to bring down Confederate statues that he would sign it.

BuzzFeed News first reported last week Northam and his advisers were looking at recalibrating the governor’s legislative agenda to focus closely on race and equality and that plan is now coming into focus. The plan includes the listening tour, as well as driving a possible increase in funding to Virginia’s five historically black colleges and universities. The goal of the listening tour, his adviser said, is not to just listen to Virginians but to talk about what he has learned from his own experiences. Northam hopes to regain the trust of nearly half the people in his state who believe that the events that have turned Northam into a household name have also rendered him unable to be an effective governor.

As a candidate for governor, Northam, 59, initially joined Terry McAuliffe in calling for Confederate statues to come down. He later softened his position, saying what should be done with the statues should be left up to localities. But in his first interview after the ill-fated Saturday press conference, Northam told the Washington Post he would take a “harder line” on Confederate monuments. “If there are statues, if there are monuments out there that provoke this type of hatred and bigotry, they need to be in museums,” Northam said.

It has been more than a week since the governor’s press conference where he admitted that he had once donned blackface, but denied that he was in a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page, either as the person in blackface or the person in a Klan outfit. He has so far weathered calls for his resignation from black lawmakers and national black leaders, like Rev. Al Sharpton, and is described by his adviser as “energized” by the opportunity before him as governor to implement real change in the commonwealth.

But for all of his belief in a greater purpose, the idea of a refocused policy agenda threatens to cause a rift between younger, more vocal activists who consider indifference toward racist symbols and imagery like the Northam case as disqualifying for office, and older leaders in communities who if not yet enticed, could come to express support for a groundswell of reversals and investments in black communities. Northam, one person advising him said, has to talk to both groups.

In an interview with CBS News that began airing last night, Northam reiterated that he’s “not going anywhere” and that he “didn’t realize the powerful implications” of being born into white privilege. The governor said he still had a lot to learn, implying that he wasn’t completely aware of the offensive nature of blackface. Northam had tried to impart some of his newfound clarity in the interview, which was conducted by Gayle King. Northam erred when he declared that the African people who had arrived in what’s now known as Virginia were “indentured servants.” King drew praise on social media by correcting the governor by saying the institution is known as “slavery.”

BuzzFeed News first reported that advisers had pushed Northam to read “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal essay in the Atlantic, and Roots by Alex Haley. Since he began reading those texts, Northam has also been urged by his advisers to watch parts of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which shook the country with its racist and disturbing view of black Americans after the Civil War. (Northam was not previously familiar with the racist depictions in the film, an adviser said.) The actors lampooning black people were played by white actors wearing blackface.

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