I think that Governor Northam could have turned this unwanted moment into something quite useful: the constructive conversation about white racism that we need.
Northam could have claimed himself to be representative of his culture back in the years that picture was taken. And then continued:
“It was a strong force in the culture – this attitude of whites in my time and place toward blacks — and I was not generally one who fought against my culture. (I even went to VMI.)
“So I carried that with me, that piece of white Virginia that had built itself on slavery, that created the terror regime of Jim Crow, that enforced segregation and forbade intermarriage, and kept blacks down by one means and another up through the resistance to integration.
“The fact that I can imagine that I could have been in such a picture is proof that I partook of a racism that white young men like me had been marinated in, an attitude that history had planted deep in the culture of white Virginians.
“But I’ve had thirty-five years since then to become a different kind of Virginia white man.
“I can see that I came into adulthood with a white attitude that fails to see blacks and their situation with a sympathetic attitude. How else to imagine the KKK, that terrorized generations of blacks to keep them “in their place,” as any kind of joke?
“That has led me to a transformation. The change began when I began to be willing to own up to the wrongs that whites have inflicted upon blacks, to understand what that KKK figure signifies. That led me to favor making the changes — in myself, and in our society — that recognizing that burden of our historic sins entails.
“We need to acknowledge our history, as part of our replacing the cruel and unsympathetic strain in our history with the sympathy that Christian teaching calls for: What could be a more powerful injunction to sympathy than ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’?
“It is the experience of that transformation that motivates me to use what leadership role I have to heal the racial divides. This ugly picture from the past has brought attention to the current of racism that has run in our culture for many generations, and that we are called upon to put behind us.
“The more we can put that racism behind us, the better able we will be to move Virginia forward with black and white people cooperating to build that better Virginia. And a better America.
“How I was on this issues 35 years ago was not OK. And how racism is being promoted from the bully pulpit of the Presidency is not OK either.
“I’d like to appeal to the people in America who are supporting racism in any of its forms — including supporting a President Trump who continually turns race against race — to reject that part of our heritage, that callous and sometimes cruel racism that’s been part of our culture.
“We need to join together in condemning the kind of cruelty that expressed itself in Trump’s deliberate misreading of the message of the kneeling football players. They had an important message, and it had to do with the element of terror still embedded in race relations, as we all had seen a series of videos of ugly incidents of unarmed black men being killed by white police officers.
“We need to reject the failure of sympathy revealed by the response of part of the white population to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which tried to call attention to the lack of respect for black lives shown by that same series of videos.
“So we need to talk through these issues of how whites relate to blacks. There’s work to be done.
“The inescapable truth is, there is a partisan division when it comes to white racism. Not only am I determined to use my power to counter the racism we get from Donald Trump, but also counter the racism that we get from a Republican Party here in Virginia that nominated Corey Stewart to run for the U.S. Senate last November.
“The Party of Lincoln has become a launching pad for racist politicians.
“So the question I would ask is: How can we best use the opportunity that this picture has created?
What kind of conversation on race would serve us best? How should racist feelings be dealt with? What kinds of healing are possible?
“And in terms of the politics, what kind of conversation would do the most to weaken the power of racism and fortify the power of harmony and cooperation?”
Maybe something like that would have served to give Northam the moral authority the forfeiture of which has mandated that he resign.
Or maybe he’d still have to resign, but he’d have gone out with some words worth putting into the national conversation about race, and would have struck a blow in the battle now ongoing over the soul of America.