The Virginia governor who narrowly survived a blackface scandal earlier this year appointed a new top aide Monday whose job will be to make government more inclusive.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced at a Capitol news conference that he had hired Janice Underwood as Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Her duties will include formulating a strategic plan to address unequal treatment in state government. The governor said Underwood would have broad authority to identify and help eliminate workplace politics that “historically and systematically affect the individual of color and other under-represented groups.”
The announcement was the latest in a long string of actions Northam has taken to improve race relations in recent months as he works to repair his image.
Underwood, a former director of diversity initiatives at Old Dominion University, said one of the things that drew her to the new job was Northam’s commitment to rebuilding trust in the wake of a scandal that nearly forced him from office.
“He hasn’t always gotten it right, but what I respect the most is that he’s willing to learn and do the work,” Underwood said.
Northam has largely rebounded since a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced in February and almost forced him from office.
The photo showed a person wearing blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, and then denied it the next day, while acknowledging that he did wear blackface to a dance party that same year.
Almost all of Northam’s political allies initially pushed him to resign and the governor’s political career looked all-but dead. But Northam resisted calls to step down, saying he instead wanted to help heal the state’s lingering racial wounds and devote the rest of his term to promoting racial equality.
“We have a unique opportunity to bring good from what happened to Virginia,” Northam said Monday.
Other recent actions by Northam include successfully pushing to remove lettering honoring the president of the Confederacy from a 1950s-era archway at Fort Monroe, where the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. And he recently named a commission to eliminate Jim Crow-era discriminatory language from state laws and regulations.
Del. Lamont Bagby, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said he was pleased with Underwood’s appointment as well as Northam’s recent job performance.
“I’m starting to see some of the things I was hoping to see,” Bagby said. “I would give him a B-plus.”