If a child is taught, either overtly or unconsciously, that racism is acceptable, is it possible to change? This seems to me to be the question at the heart of the crisis facing Virginians as they decide how to respond to the revelations this week that Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to appearing in blackface as young adults.
The debate continues to rage more than a week after one or more of Northam’s medical school colleagues, incensed about the governor’s comments on late-term abortions, called media attention to his yearbook page. Given that his classmates had known about the photograph for 35 years, the release of the photograph seems not to have been done out of any concern that Northam might be racist. That, in itself, speaks volumes about the culture that gave rise to the photograph.
Opinions on whether Northam should resign are not as black and white as the painted face and the robe in the yearbook picture.
Donna Edwards, a black woman who lost a heated primary race in 2016 for a Maryland Senate seat to a white man, concludes, “…for now, sit it out. Come back, if you do, prepared to ask voters to accept your past and cast their vote anyway.”
Megan McArdle, a white woman who generally leans right in her journalistic commentary, said this, “If those people are willing to acknowledge their past sins, they deserve some leniency, not because racist caricature is anything less than abhorrent but because the easier it is for people to leave behind their past wrongs, the faster society can move forward.”
Perhaps the most interesting range of views comes from Virginia’s faith leaders, whose opinions range from resignation to reconciliation, with even African-American pastors disagreeing.
The Rev. Kelvin Jones, Northam’s pastor in rural Northampton County, says he has the right to prove himself, noting, “I’ve come to learn that we aren’t afforded opportunities to make right on what are our wrongs. Because we live in a society that discards you once you’re wrong.”
On the other side, the African Episcopal Methodist Church issued a statement saying, in part, “We urge the members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to pray for Governor Northam and his family that this time they choose correctly—to resign and repent.”
Whatever happens in this current situation, we must as a nation grapple at some point with the question of whether we believe people are capable of changing as a result of their experiences. Few white people who have grown up in red states have been overtly taught in their homes that blackface, the Confederate flag, and the gray uniform of the Confederate soldier are offensive.
Even in homes like my own, where my mother frequently told us, “Colored people are just the same as you and me,” nothing was ever said about the offensiveness of Civil War artifacts. In school our teachers proudly taught us that West Virginia became a state when it seceded from Virginia in 1861. But we watched television shows that stereotyped African-Americans, and each year our family gathered in front of the screen to watch Gone with the Wind, indelible visual images that overwhelmed anything my mother might say.
When I left home for college, I dated a young man whose fraternity held a Confederate ball, an event I attended without a thought to what the black students on campus might feel on seeing all of us leaving for the ball dressed in Confederate uniforms and hoop-skirted ball gowns.
Yet somehow as I read the literature that prepared me to be an English teacher, my worldview expanded. I was also fortunate enough in my first year to teach across the hall from an African-American science teacher who mentored me about the best ways to talk to and engage children of color.
Northam grew up in Virginia and attended Virginia Military Institute, a school known as “the West Point of the South.” Herring was born in Tennessee but moved to Virginia at the age of 12. Both seem to have changed, however, after encountering a bigger world, and since then they’ve devoted their lives to fighting injustice.
I believe in the power of learning to change us in profound ways. Over and over again, I saw children open their minds after reading, discussing, and hearing the perspectives of others.
Senator Tim Kaine told reporters Thursday that his state’s Democratic leaders, led by African-American leaders, are considering the sincerity of Northam’s and Herring’s apologies. Right now, he says, the Legislative Black Caucus and African-American leaders are calling for Northam to resign but feel that Herring’s apology may leave room for forgiveness and redemption.
Northam’s clumsy attempt at an immediate response is perhaps understandable in a climate where Democrats rush to judgment. Virginia Democrats chose him as a candidate in spite of his poor ability as a public speaker because of his long track-record for sincerity and his passion in fighting for the underdog.
Both Northam and Herring have devoted their professional lives to battling injustice and advancing the causes of the poor and disenfranchised. That doesn’t expiate their transgressions. But shouldn’t a lifetime of learning and their entire professional record carry more weight than their behavior in a culture that allowed Northam and others to publish such photographs in yearbooks in the first place?
Where does it leave us if we continue to drive Democrats out of office while Republicans allow leaders to serve in spite of vastly more offensive transgressions and who, once in office, do not have a track record of advancing social justice and equality?
I fear the consequences of a climate where Republicans turn a blind eye to egregious behavior that continues throughout a candidate’s life and Democrats who, as Northam’s pastor says, discard leaders when they are wrong, no matter what they’ve done since.