I’m pissed off that I have to write about soon-to-be-former Virginia governor, Ralph Northam. It’s 2019 and I have actual work to do. There’s no way I should have to stop what I’m doing to join the “national conversation” about why dressing up in blackface disqualifies you from a leadership position in society. They don’t make astrophysicists pause their search for a unified theory of gravity to convince an idiot cat to come down from a tree. The emotional labor this society puts on black people is exhausting. Nobody should have to waste time explaining why Doctor Blackface can’t have his career anymore, and black people shouldn’t be charged with administering the final dose of morphine to put Northam out of his misery.
But, here we are. Of course Ralph Northam must resign. Now. He just gave the most damaging “damage control” press conference I’ve ever seen, and I’m old enough to remember that Donald Trump is president.
As usual when dealing with the past indiscretions of powerful white men, several jumbled arguments are being deployed in his defense:
- It was a long time ago, so how many times does he have to say “I’m sorry,” since he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body, except for that one bone everybody is unfairly focusing on.
- It wasn’t that big of a deal, and if it was everybody was doing it, and if they weren’t, then “c’mon, nobody’s perfect.”
- It wasn’t me, aka “The Shaggy Defense.”
All of these arguments are flaming trash, but, apparently, I need to explain why. Again.
There is no “statute of limitations” on being a racist. I know white people desperately want there to be, but that’s not how this works. You can’t say “Phew. My last (known) act of racism was 11 years ago, not 10, so now I’m in the clear.” Your accountability for your own racism doesn’t lapse by sheer passage of time.
What you can do is reform your racist ways and repent for past sins. Racism is learned. It can be unlearned. But there is no ethical philosophy, secular or spiritual, that contemplates repentance and forgiveness without first standing to account before your community or your God. You can’t be “born again” by washing away your sins in the privacy of your own bathtub.
Ralph Northam would have us believe that one day he was a racist who thought racist iconography was funny. Then… some other day, he woke up and decided that he was wrong and was not going to be racist anymore. The relevant question isn’t how long ago it was that he thought racism was funny, the question is, When, if ever, did he stop thinking it was funny?
When did he figure out this obvious thing that his betters in 1984 already knew? In 1985? When he had his first black patient? When he became interested in politics? When he met Barack Obama? Yesterday, when he got caught? When? When did Ralph Northam learn that it’s not funny to be racist anymore, and why the hell should I believe him?
Northam claims we should believe he’s not racist anymore and hasn’t been for a long time. He won’t tell us when he stopped being racist, but he wants us to look at his post-medical-school life as evidence that he has reformed. That’s a ridiculous argument. You don’t get points for doing what you are supposed to be doing already. “I only posed for pictures in blackface that one time” is the racism equivalent of saying “I haven’t killed any homeless people since I buried that one guy in the desert. In fact, I volunteer at my local soup kitchen.”
If Northam loses this job, it will be the first time, in his whole life as far as we know, that he has been held accountable for his racist actions. He hasn’t been paying this debt for 35 years, he’s been paying it for 36 hours.
How much he should pay, what accountability should look like, brings us to the second argument deployed in defense of white people who wear blackface: “Why is blackface even that big of a deal?”
Since we literally just went through this with Megyn Kelly, I’m not going to repeat all the historical and philosophical arguments. If you need a refresher course, click here.
However, one thing that is largely being missed from the discussion is the harm Northam did to other students at his medical school in real time.
The summer before my senior year of high school, my parents divorced, and we moved from New York to live with my mom’s family in Indiana. At my new school, they let seniors have their own parking spots, and seniors could paint or decorate the spots however they wished.
My randomly assigned spot was painted with the Confederate flag, courtesy of the previous owner, whom I obviously never met.
If you can, imagine being a black kid coming to a new school, in a different part of the country, with no friends, and being greeted by the Stars and Bars in your parking space? What did it say about the school, the administration of which let that just sit there and didn’t think to paint it over at the first opportunity? What did it say about the new kids I was supposed to learn with? How many Confederate sympathizers was I dealing with? What did it say about the black people at my new school? Had they been forced into submission, or assimilated to the point where this stuff was okay? Was I going to meet black supporters of the Confederacy, the kind of which I thought were about as real as leprechauns?
Did I mention that this all happened in 1995 in Indiana, not 1965 in Mississippi?
My story has a happy ending. I made a big deal about the offense—I didn’t park my car in the space and instead left it in the pass-through lane behind the spot, blocking traffic and basically daring somebody to say something. A weekend passed, and when I came back on Monday, the flag was gone. My new teammates on the football team, white kids and black kids that I had met earlier in the summer for practice, had painted over my spot for me. They knew that imagery was wrong; they just maybe needed a little disruption for inspiration.
I try, I try really hard, to think of my excellent teammates when I think about that year of high school in Indiana… but the first thing that comes to mind, even God-I’m-so-old years later, is that damn Confederate flag.
What Northam did matters. It mattered to his black classmates in 1984. It mattered to the nonwhite classmates that followed him in ’85, or ’86. A parking spot or a yearbook is insignificant, but the proud display of racist iconography is not. It is textbook divisive. It is textbook unwelcoming. Even when the perpetrator decides that racist imagery no longer best represents who they are, the hard work of painting over their filth is left to others.
Northam has had 35 years to apologize to his African-American classmates. Do you think he has? Do you think he showed up to a reunion, sought out a black classmate, and said, “Hey, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen our yearbook from that year, but if you have, I’m sorry. I’m deeply sorry I did that and ruined that little piece of our shared experience for you. Is there any way you can forgive me?” Even if he he’s going with the “moonwalk” defense, he’s had 35 years to apologize and make amends for his offensive costuming. The fact that it took his alleged black friend—”Seth,” according to the press conference—to tell him it was wrong … in 2017… tells you all you need to know about Northam’s commitment to apologizing to all the classmates who didn’t lather shoe polish on their faces to go dancing.
Of course, he hasn’t. Northam didn’t apologize for this until he was caught. Northam wants to make it up to Virginians who voted for him, but he did nothing to make it up to classmates who studied with him. Northam’s like the guy who toilet papers your house, then makes apologies to Charmin for disrespecting their product, while leaving you to clean up the mess he made.
Even now, he doesn’t seem to have the decency to resign. He’s going to make the very people he offended do “the hard work” of canceling him. He’s going to make people of color running for president stop what they’re doing to own him. He’s going to make his lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, an African-American political star in the making, lower himself to nudging Northam out of the door. He’s going to make me and all my teammates take time out of our weekends to paint over his leave-behind.
Ralph Northam now knows that you shouldn’t put up photos of people in blackface and Klan garb on your yearbook page. He still doesn’t know why. If he did, he’d get his own ass out of the tree instead of waiting for the rest of us to come for him.