I have to admit that I wasn’t all that surprised when news first emerged that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and a friend had appeared in a racist blackface/KKK photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook. (It’s not clear who is in which costume.) My reaction wasn’t so much a judgment on Northam’s character than a clear-eyed recognition of Virginia’s and America’s history.
The fact is, for a significant portion of its pre- and post-colonial history — starting in Virginia in 1619 — American society was structured with the legal trade and enslavement of other human beings as commonplace. Moreover, after a costly and bloody Civil War, the de jure abolition of slavery in the United States gave way to a different sort of subjugation in the dual form of Jim Crow — predominantly in the former Confederate South — and de facto racial, social engineering even in the Union North. It was not until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s that many of these explicit racial constructions began to be torn down.
Think about it: when Northam was born in 1959, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still seemed like a political impossibility and Boynton v. Virginia — the landmark civil rights decision that prohibited segregation in public transportation — had yet to be decided. By the time the somewhat more famous Loving v. Virginia case on interracial marriage reached the Supreme Court, Northam was almost eight years old, and anti-miscegenation was still the law of the land in his native Virginia.
Racism is not a light switch that snaps on and off depending on Supreme Court decisions and additions to the U.S. Code. The same prejudice that guided the people in Virginia to vote for and support politicians who vigorously opposed these and other similar efforts is kindred to the hostility that still existed in Virginia and elsewhere afterwards — no matter how meaningful the milestones outlined above were. The state that Northam grew up in was still grappling with its sordid racial history, and as a result, one has to acknowledge that Northam more than likely grew up with a less than admirable views of other races and the peoples of those races.
In one regard, it is only by sheer luck that more incidents involving prominent public figures in similarly inappropriate behavior during their earlier years have not come to prominence. Given the length and essentialism of America’s racial history, just by the simple law of averages, one would expect Northam-like revelations to be far more ubiquitous. So you can imagine how underwhelmed I was when Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced that he too had donned blackface in college (after initially rebuking Northam, but more on that later).
However, I was surprised by how incredulous everyone, from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) to Virginia Republican Chair Jack Wilson, was to the whole controversy. To be exact, I was surprised by how muted my emotional response was in comparison. It wasn’t because I didn’t understand what was objectionable or I didn’t find the photo disgusting. The problem was, in effect, being asked to judge a 59-year-old man by who he was when he was 25.
I have no hesitation saying that the 25-year-old man who appeared in that photo was an unmistakable racist who probably did so for no better reason than a cheap laugh.
However, the photo tells me nothing about the person he is today.
This is what I know: in his time in the Virginia Legislature and subsequently, as Lieutenant Governor, Northam earned the respect of his black colleagues. When Northam ran for governor, his running mate was Justin Fairfax, an African-American. Northam voiced his support for the relocation of Confederate public monuments during the campaign. Furthermore, he also campaigned admirably against the racist fear-mongering of his opponent during that election. I think those people accusing Northam of being racist have a higher burden of proof.
Moreover, the broader project on racial equality is premised on the notion that with time and perseverance, it is possible to fundamentally reorient the views and ideas that undergird racism and discrimination. Central to this is the ability to change people’s minds. To reject this is to dismiss the enduring hope of the entire civil rights movement, turning it all into a cynical ploy. Ultimately, if you don’t believe people can change, society can’t change. What’s the point of this whole endeavor in the first place?
You either believe that people can change, and therefore implicitly in the notion of some measure of forgiveness for past moral failings, or you don’t. Each situation should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis — a blanket zero tolerance response is counterproductive. People need to know there is redemption after revelation, not retribution.
Far more concerning to me than what someone did 30 or so years ago is the implicit racial attitudes that we allow to fester and spread. Apart from the hypocritical foibles of Herring mentioned previously, it is the irony of ironies that some of the same Virginia lawmakers condemning Northam and demanding his resignation also recently paid tribute in the Virginia Senate to the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, who fought to protect the institution of slavery in the South.
These are the same racial attitudes that keep Lost Cause denialism alive and well. It has become depressingly predictable for me to have a conversation with a fellow student at A&M about racial issues and when the conservation touches on the original sin of slavery, for that student to go on some diatribe about how the Civil War was about states’ rights — regardless of what was contained in the southern states’ declarations of secession.
It is not difficult to estimate why. Aggies, both past and present, who rain holy hell on the A&M campus at even the slightest suggestion of relocating the statue of Sul Ross — who was a Confederate general — seem oddly indifferent to the stalled effort to honor Matthew Gaines, the former slave and Texas state senator who was instrumental in the establishment of A&M.
Unfortunately, A&M also has not been immune to some of the more egregious racial incidents.
I realize that Northam’s subsequent denials and the withdrawal of support from some of the black legislators referenced above shifts this analysis considerably, but not on the central question: is Ralph Northam a racist? For me, the answer is still no. Nothing that I have seen reported since the first week has changed this.
I’m not a mind-reader, and I can’t read what’s in his heart. I am sure this will act as fodder for those who have utterly convinced themselves of Northam’s prejudice. What I do believe is that Northam was able to overcome the racist indoctrination that he had grown up with and subsequently became a genteel and honorable man who became an ally in the sometimes uneven path toward racial equity.
I don’t know if Northam should resign or not, but I do know that he represents a small bending of the moral arc. The Northam of today is a good man, and this country and the State of Virginia are better for it.
For me, the story in Virginia isn’t about a political scandal around racist behavior, but more about the necessity of forgiveness and how we sometimes inadvertently ignore much more problematic behavior.