Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s Yearbook photo has reopened our country’s deep racial wounds. (Lee District Democratic Committee via Wikimedia Commons)
On Friday, February 8, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said that he intends to serve out the rest of his term fighting for “racial equity.”
The best way for him to do that is to resign.
Last week, a photo from Northam’s medical school yearbook page emerged on social media. In the image, a young white man beaming through coats of dark shoe polish stands next to a figure draped in a KKK robe.
Northam immediately apologized in the face of abounding uproar only to renege the very next morning, saying that he was not one of the two men in the photo. Then, as if to try to clear the air, Northam explained how he knew he wasn’t pictured: because he distinctly remembers dressing in blackface on at least one separate occasion.
Amidst widespread calls for his resignation, many have spoken on Northam’s behalf and defended his decision to remain in office. Citing his impressive public service record and previously impeccable credentials, his allies have implored vehement critics to “forgive” Northam; to realize that this happened decades ago and to give him the “benefit of the doubt.”
I wish we could give him that. No really, I do. I wish we could believe that someone could wear KKK robes with no malicious intent. I wish we could trust that someone could don blackface in innocent jest with no harm done. And I wish we could forget that just a few decades ago, no one thought twice about demeaning and vilifying an entire race of people-and that it was socially acceptable in certain places, or somehow funny.
Unfortunately, we can’t. Even if Northam was totally unaware of blackface’s vile history, wearing it and submitting a picture of a friend doing so to his med-school yearbook was horribly ignorant and shockingly insensitive at best. Even if he wasn’t the individual under the hood (I hope for the sake of his soul that he wasn’t), he had to have some knowledge of the barbarism it represents. And even though it was decades ago, publishing that picture reveals both a racist prejudice and utter imprudence completely unfit for a governor’s mansion.
In a nation rocked by scandals like this one far too often (not to mention stained by a long history of virulent racism), the best way to discourage their reoccurrence is to establish a zero-tolerance policy. One repulsively racist strike, and you’re out. End of story.
Now there are those who would counter with something along the lines as “Well, no matter how horrible the transgressions, we can’t hate him forever. We can’t judge people of yesteryear by the standards of today. We have to forgive him at some point.”
And I completely agree. If Northam gave a sincere apology, and if he proved himself to be a genuinely changed man — neither of which he’s even come close to doing by the way– I could forgive him. I could even, for all I know, take him out to talk over lunch, somehow overlook his reprehensible past and deplorable decisions, and decide that he’s a good guy.
But interpersonal forgiveness and fitness for public office are two very different things:one is between only two people, the other much larger. We can forgive public servants, while maintaining that they aren’t deserving of public office.
We can be merciful towards politicians’ misdeeds, while still insisting that the best way to atone for them is to step down.
So yes, were I a Virginian, I could be perfectly amiable with Mr. Northam and consider him a changed, genuine man, but still tell him that I’m not comfortable with his representing me in government.
After all, public servants are supposed to represent the very best of all of us. But by revealing a past of marred prejudices and insensitivities toward half of his constituency, Ralph Northam can’t represent the best of his state, nor can he claim to impartially govern all of its people. Since he can’t do that, he has no place as Virginia’s governor