Rethinking Ralph Northam

Rethinking Ralph Northam

Progressives shouldn’t expect infallibility from our leaders.


The controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam exploded like the Big Bang. Almost within seconds of the unveiling of pictures from Northam’s medical-school yearbook by a right-wing website that alleged that they were of the governor in blackface—or in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan—there were immediate calls for his resignation. That these pictures were taken 35 years ago seemed nearly irrelevant to Northam’s critics. With each passing moment, the calls for his resignation increased.

The actions of Northam 35 years ago, whether he was in those pictures (as he first admitted, then denied) or not, and whether, as he later admitted, he once “blacked up” to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest, were stupid and racist. There was never a “good” time for such performances. They were never funny, nor should they ever have been acceptable.

These actions, however, were taken 35 years ago. There has been little discussion of whether Northam’s record since 1984 has been consistent or inconsistent with the behavior represented by those pictures and his acknowledgement of having done “blackface.”

It should have been no surprise that Northam could very well have engaged in racial “comedy” at some point. The toxicity of racism in the United States is ever-present. The fact that blackface has been presented as comedy by white America since the 19th century, and was a major component of white film comedy for much of the 20th century, should have prepared us for such a possibility. It actually appears not to have surprised most black Virginians who, according to recent polls, largely oppose the idea of Northam’s resignation.

What should have been the central question is less a matter of what Northam did 35 years ago than what he has done since. Specifically, to what extent has he been on the side of progress—or on the side of reaction?

I have yet to hear anyone who is calling for Northam to resign make such a connection. People have been angered by the revelation—with good reason—and critiqued his second press conference, again with good reason. But I have not heard anyone argue that his behavior has been consistent with those pictures.

If we look at his record we find a politician who has consistently voted for minimum-wage increases; voted against voter suppression; voted against many restrictions on a woman’s right to control her body; and vetoed efforts to stop sanctuary. Yes, as I have been reminded by some, Northam is no leftist. His policies have not always been progressive, and he is currently embroiled in a struggle involving a plan by Dominion Energy to run a pipeline that would go through an historically African-American area. There are certainly grounds for criticism, if not outright opposition, but this has not been connected with his behavior from 35 years ago.

What I find disconcerting is that many of those demanding Northam’s resignation appear to believe that the passage of 35 years should not matter, i.e., that we should ignore the very real fact that much can change in 35 years. In the midst of the Northam controversy I found myself thinking about the Rev. Jesse Jackson and remarks that he made during his 1984 bid for the presidency that got him into a lot of trouble. He was caught making anti-Jewish statements by Milton Coleman from The Washington Post. The comments were ugly and out of character with the campaign—the Rainbow Coalition—that Jackson had been waging. Though some suggested that he needed to offer no apology, in his keynote speech at at the Democratic Convention, he offered an eloquent one: “If, in my low moments, in word, deed or attitude, through some error of temper, taste, or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain, or revived someone’s fears, that was not my truest self…. I am not a perfect servant. I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient: God is not finished with me yet.”

That was 1984—the same year as Northam’s yearbook pictures. Both were very ugly examples of the toxicity of racism and, in the case of Jackson, anti-Semitism. But, since that time, what has been Jackson’s record? He has consistently spoken out against all forms of bias and oppression and, in fact, made that campaign a hallmark of his 1988 run for the presidency. What purpose would it serve in 2019, to revive an incident for which Jackson not only apologized but went out of his way to redeem himself?

There are only two answers. One is that someone sees in this history a political vulnerability. A second possibility is that some of us, on the progressive side of the aisle, believe that our political leaders must be and must always have been pure and upright, incapable of making mistakes.

For those on an attack mission, there is nothing to be said. This was their tactic in a war. But for those who, only a few short weeks ago, saw in Governor Northam a potential ally, and in some cases, someone worthy of support, there is no room for expecting infallibility among our leaders. The central question revolves around their trajectory and their current practice. (Here, of course, I am addressing non-criminal forms of behavior.)

The deeper issue for progressives is whether we believe that people can change. At what point do we say that someone who has done or said something objectionable, something that is not criminal by nature, has changed? At what point do we note that their work illustrates at least some awareness of the limitations, if not wrongheadedness, of their former views and behavior?

In the last several days I have had exchanges with many people around the Northam controversy. There are those who believe, very strongly, that an example must be made against racism and racist behavior—even if that example revolves around an incident from 35 years ago. Such a view sends chills up my spine when I think about the various stupid, racist, sexist, etc., things that many people that I know did in their younger years but have long since rejected not only in words but in deeds. I find myself wondering what might happen were some of these incidents brought to the surface. Who stands to gain?

As a final point, a note to those who have been vociferous in their criticisms: Make sure that your own closet is clean. Make sure that there is no dirt that is hidden. Make sure that your behavior was beyond reproach. Ensure that you attended no social events where, after a drink or two—or something else—you made a remark or behaved in a manner for which you would be less than proud today.

Just a suggestion. And a word to the wise.

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