WASHINGTON – In the wake of a firestorm surrounding Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, civil rights leaders and political experts expect others will also be called to task for racially insensitive actions from their past – but they noted the controversy shows how far the nation has to go to heal its thorny history on race relations.
“We still have much work to do. We are far from the concept of a post-racial society," said Derrick Johnson, president of the national NAACP. “Individuals and political parties have used race as a tool. The overarching question for us as a nation is: When are we going to address it – the issue of intolerance and racism and not seek to sweep it under a rug that can never cover it up?”
Johnson, along with other civil rights leaders and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, have been quick to call for Northam, a Democrat, to resign after a picture emerged from his yearbook page of a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe.
Northam apologized Friday for being in the photo but reversed his position Saturday, saying he doesn't believe he is in the photo. He called it "disgusting, offensive, racist."
The calls for his resignation continued Sunday.
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called Northam’s explanation disingenuous. “He needs to resign,'' she said on NBC’s "Meet the Press."
As the controversy swirls around Northam, civil rights advocates said they don’t expect him to be the last politician called to task for similar problems.
“We are going to see other incidents in the future. I don’t think that this is the end of it," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the end of it, because this is the legacy of the past. The sunlight is shining on things that people thought were buried."
Johnson said the country has yet to deal with some causes of racism and “until we do that we will always have, unfortunately, racialized events bubble up.”
Political experts said the swift reaction to Northam may be a sign that more politicians and others won’t be able to survive past wrongdoings.
Adolphus Belk Jr., a professor of political science and African American studies at Winthrop University, said the reaction shows people aren't willing to allow politicians to explain away "youthful transgressions."
“This was a grown man in medical school," he said. "He should have known better. The people who were with him should have known better. The people who are responsible for publishing the yearbook should have known better.”
Belk said those actions have serious consequences.
“Are we so naive to think that people who say and do things like this leave those things at the door when they go into their place of work, their place of worship or wherever they may be … and become trustful earnest, public servants?’’ he said.
In his condemnation of the photo on Saturday, Northam admitted to blackening his face with shoe polish for a Michael Jackson costume at a dance contest in the 1980s.
But the governor, who was elected in 2017, said he was determined to complete his four-year term.
Morial called Northam’s “defense clumsy’’ and “inconsistent.”
“He handled it poorly," he said. “I think (other) people will be called to task. I think it’s better for people to come clean in advance.”
Rickey Hill, retired chair of the political science department at Jackson State University, said it could be a pivotal moment if Northam’s feet are held to the fire and he resigns.
Hill said Democrats can use it as a way to consolidate their base for the 2020 presidential race and congressional elections.
If Democrats don’t take swift action, including calling for Northam’s resignation, they “run the risk of turning black folks off,” Hill said.
Traditionally, African-American voters have supported Democratic candidates. Some civil rights leaders said Northam wouldn’t have won Virginia, a swing state, without the support of black voters.
“It’s positive that he may have evolved, but people did not have his complete record in front of them when they made a decision,’’ Morial said. “If people had known this, would he had gotten 90 percent of the African-American vote when he ran?”
Hill said Democrats could use the "crisis" to their advantage, especially to go up against President Donald Trump.
“Because this issue and how it is being dealt with is so tied to what the national Democratic Party has to do to try and win the presidency, it cannot be allowed to just fade away,’’ Hill said. “It has to be used as campaign fodder.”
Republicans also must be held accountable, experts said.
“If folks are going be serious about this and not just play it to their political advantage, you have to do a better job of screening people before they run for public office at any level of government," Belk said. “One of the things this country needs is people of good character to go into public service.”
Hill said the Northam scandal comes at a time when some politicians and others feel license to make comments and still survive.
“This is also old stuff," said Hill, noting a history of racially insensitive remarks. “We have seen all of these cases of racial statements and evidence of racial domination across the country, not just in these old Southern states but across the country. Donald Trump is from Queens, New York. He is not a Southerner. But Southerners have embraced him.”
Trump has often been criticized for several of his remarks, including his 2017 comments when he said "both sides" were responsible for the violence that broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, and led to the death of a protester.
Trump isn't the only prominent Republican who has come under fire, though.
Mississippi Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith apologized last fall for her comments about a “public hanging’’ during a campaign against Democrat Mike Espy, an African-American. Her state has a history of lynchings.
And just last month, the House passed a resolution condemning Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, for questioning why phrases such as "white supremacist" are offensive.
At the state level, Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel resigned last month after photos emerged of him posing as a Hurricane Katrina victim in blackface at a private Halloween party 14 years ago.
“Some may survived, but that doesn’t mean we as advocates should not call for them to resign or we should not condemn them," Morial said. “We have a role to play. We don’t control the political process. But I think in Virginia in 2019, Northam’s ability to lead has been irreparably harmed.”
Contributing: John Bacon
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Northam photo scandal reveals how far the country has to go on race relations, experts say