If you were somehow unaware, Ralph Northam, the Governor of Virginia, came under fire this week after the conservative website Big League Politics reported a racist photo being displayed on the Governor’s Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page. The photo, which shows one person in blackface and one person in Ku Klux Klan robes (very presumably Northam and a friend), immediately prompted widespread calls for his resignation nationwide. Almost everyone from the Virginia Democratic and Republican Parties to Donald Trump and several democrats running for president have demanded that Northam step down. But, despite my personal disgust with the photo, my initial reaction was that he shouldn’t resign.
When I saw the photo, the first thing I thought of was a project I did for my AP US History class at the end of my junior year of high school. Two weeks before the exam, our teacher asked my class to prepare a short presentation on an official AP term which we had not yet had the opportunity to cover. For my project, I chose the term “minstrel shows” because, despite not really knowing what they were, I knew that they were somehow connected to African American history. I was (obviously) appalled by my research. And though I had always known that blackface was problematic, I wasn’t able to fully grasp the historical context and significance until I did that project.
Unfortunately, due to a combo of snow days and poor planning by my teacher, I never actually presented my findings to the rest of the class. Instead (and pretty ironically), we spent that hour-long class period that had been allocated for the presentations going over the entirety of African American history since the end of Reconstruction. I am not exaggerating. In a day, we went from the rise of Jim Crow to A. Philip Randolph to Brown v Board of Education to the Black Power movements. And that was the only time we ever discussed such matters in the class.
While it made me a little mad that I had spent a considerable amount of time preparing for the presentation and wouldn’t be able to teach my classmates about minstrel shows, I was infuriated by the fact that we just skimmed over such an important aspect of our history. I was infuriated by the fact that we considered such a critical aspect of our history as separate and unrelated to the rise of American on the world stage: two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the resurgence of conservatism, etc.
This all being said, most Americans probably have had much less of an exposure to the other side, the African American side, of our history. And, as a result, they probably think that this aspect of our history was much and is much less important and influential than it actually is. I was fortunate enough to have gone to high school in one of the most progressive counties in the United States, and I was fortunate enough to have been able to take an Advanced Placement class which barely covered these subjects. Most of my schoolmates, most Americans, and most of our policymakers were not nearly as fortunate as I was. And yet I still needed to make a little extra effort and enroll in African American History since 1965 during my second year of college to fully (or maybe just partially) grasp the historical context and significance of our country’s racial issues.
How does this all tie into why I didn’t think Northam should resign? I think it does in three ways (and, honestly, more. but I think I can only sustain your attention for three).
The first is that I found it believable that Northam make an ignorant mistake in 1984. I didn’t think his offense was so egregious that is merited his resignation. It didn’t seem as if he had hurt anyone then (his black classmate from Eastern Virginia Medical felt the same way.) And I felt the policies and political stances he took during his governorship were clear indications that he had evolved as a person. I felt that if he could sincerely apologize, show a clear commitment to the cause of Civil Rights and begin the process of healing, he could, at the very least, regain our trust. I thought that we, at least, needed to hear the man out.
The second is that I hope that Northam remaining in office would lead to a better discussion of race. I thought that is could bring forth interesting conversations about evolution in character that our country needs. When the photo first began to circulate (and before any of his responses), I felt that Northam’s story (loosely) mirrored our country’s story. He used to be overtly racist, now, through his policies, he has shown that he isn’t. Is getting rid of that overt racism enough? How can he make up for the blemishes of his past and how can he better recognize his shortcomings and biases in the present? How can we take this incident and help us move forward into the future? I felt none of these would be answered, or discussed, if he resigned.
Finally, I didn’t think he should step down because I am angry (yes, I will say angry) about so many more salient issues related to race than this one. It didn’t make sense to me that we all would get so worked up out a costume worn at a party 35 years ago when I am so worked up about red-lining, mass incarceration, and the general lack of awareness or understanding of racial issues pervasive throughout this country. Once again, I thought this was relatively harmless compared to, say, Joe Biden’s treatment of Anita Hill in 1991 or the evidence of very discriminatory practices by President Trump’s real estate company in the 1970s. I wondered what the line we draw from outrage is. I didn’t think it was fair that the world could get mad at Northam for something he did 35 years ago when, a lot of the time, it seems like so few of us care about issues that affect minorities today. It’s easy to get angry about overt racism. It’s harder to put in the efforts to get angry about subtle racism. While overt racism definitely still is a problem, I would argue that subtle, institutional racism is a much bigger problem. Where is the unified anger to fight that?
All of this is to say that we need to make sure our policymakers and our public are better exposed to our country’s racial history and issues. If it truly is too hard to integrate these vital histories into our education systems, the least we can do is change the way we think and talk about race.
So… should Northam resign?
But not because of a woefully ignorant mistake he made 35 years ago.
He should resign for failing to come forward with the information earlier. He should resign for failing to acknowledge that he was in the photo and for trying to cover up something he admitted to doing a day before. He should resign after he almost moonwalked on stage during a press conference.
In my opinion, Northam had the opportunity to reconcile for his past. But his actions over the course of the past week showed that he is not ready or fit to do so as governor. Reconciliation is no longer possible without at least a resignation.
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