Still Clueless After All These Years

by James A. Bacon

In his latest hit job on the Virginia Military Institute, the Washington Post’s Ian Shapira weaves into his account responses to questions submitted to Governor Ralph Northam in writing. Northam, who served as president of the Honor Court and graduated from the Institute in 1981, comes across as totally clueless.

“I don’t remember seeing racism aimed at Black cadets, but I’m sure it happened,” said Northam, without offering any specifics on how he’s sure. As a cadet, he focused mainly on surviving VMI’s academic and military-training challenges, he said. “I didn’t fully understand how subtle [racism] is. … I had the privilege of not having to see it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.”

If the racism was so subtle that Northam didn’t see it, that might be an indication that racism wasn’t as horrendous as he now believes — based largely on Shapira’s portrayal. Either he was clueless then, or he is clueless now.

“I didn’t understand the real history behind the school’s Confederate ties,” Northam also told the Post. Back then, he says, schools weren’t teaching that the statues were “intentionally designed to terrorize and intimidate Black Virginians during the Jim Crow era, that this was about white supremacy and the so-called ‘Lost Cause.'”

Yet surely, if VMI was still venerating statues in 1980 for the purpose of “terrorizing and intimidating” black Virginians, even the oblivious Northam would have noticed. Clearly, that was not the case. Whatever the original reasons for erecting Confederate statues throughout the South in the distant past, the meaning of the Stonewall Jackson statue for VMI cadets had evolved. Jackson was venerated as the greatest tactical military genius produced by VMI, not for the fact, as the Washington Post endlessly tells us, that he owned slaves or fought to uphold slavery. Why can’t Northam just admit that was the case?

Because he’s clueless.

Shapira cited the case of a black cadet who was recruited to run track at VMI who was convicted by the Honor Court and expelled for cheating on an exam. The cadet maintains his innocence to this day and contends that he was targeted for his race. The report quotes Aaron Bush, an African-American serving on the Honor Court at the time, who said he didn’t believe that court was targeting black cadets for expulsion.

Northam, who served on the Honor Court as president his senior year, said he did not recall the case. But he expressed concern  about “the ongoing disparities” of the honor system. He does not base that belief on anything he personally observed — just agenda-driven Washington Post reporting.


In his VMI yearbook photo, Northam went by the nickname of “Coonman,” presumably a racist pejorative. He did not address that issue in the response to the Post, but he has said previously that two fellow classmates called him the name. He didn’t know why.


Many VMI alumni lent their support to Northam’s gubernatorial bid, when he ran as a political moderate. Nearly 1,400 cadets marched in his inaugural parade. He welcomed their support. But after reading the Washington Post exposes, the scales lifted from his eyes. He decided he was “appalled” by the systemic racism he had never witnessed and never heard about. “I knew the practices of the school were problematic in many ways, but I didn’t realize how bad it still was,” he told the Post

Still clueless after all these years.