Is There Room for Redemption for Governor Northam?
The right-wing group that produced the 1984 yearbook photo of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam standing in blackface next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan outfit could not be happier with the results. They are on the verge of forcing a Democratic Governor from office, and now Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has also admitted to performing in blackface one time in his youth. At the same time, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax has been beset by sexual assault accusations.
Governor Northam’s response has been confusing, but he apologized, pointed to how he has governed and said he is not or no longer is the man in the photograph. Just last month some leaders of the Women’s March failed to condemn Louis Farrakhan. Louis Farrakhan continues to issue anti-Semitic statements to this day. The Left needs some standards for who can be redeemed and who should be condemned.
Northam’s years of public service, the policies he has promoted and opposed, and the way he has governed tell us more about the man he is today than does a photograph from thirty-five years ago.
Northam’s years of public service, the policies he has promoted and opposed, and the way he has governed tell us more about the man he is today than does a photograph from thirty-five years ago. Apologizing, being contrite, and asking others to see us for who we are now and not for the foolish things we have done in the past falls on deaf ears in the current atmosphere of racial tension and the “Me Too” movement. We should stop and consider under what circumstances we should forgive people for the stupid and ignorant things they did in the past?
The picture of a smiling man in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan outfit is extreme and shocking. That’s how the right-wing group that produced the photograph intended it to be. Governor Northam is right to point to his life of public service to prove that he is not the person in the picture.
If we were to describe the standards for public redemption in matters of past malfeasance, we might include these three things: apologizing and being contrite, being honest and forthright about the matter, and demonstrating good character later in life. Democrats nearly unanimously called for Northam’s resignation until it became clear that the top three Virginia Democrats were in trouble. The situation has befuddled them.
To make matters more confusing, recent polling indicates that while half of Virginians believe Governor Northam should resign, most Black Virginians think he should stay on the job. Moral psychologists tell us that people are predisposed to react to offensive stimuli in a certain ways and only then use reason and logic to justify their opinions. This effect can be made worse by the reactions of those in the media. Black Virginians are right to be wary of scandal.
We on the Left should be wary of right-wing troublemakers who set us against our own. In an era of increased racial tension, the “Me Too” movement, fake news and foreign interference in our elections, it’s important to be measured and nuanced in our response, especially when the source is an opposition group or person who is trying to exacerbate divisions and provoke us to attack one another.
If our enemies can count on our knee-jerk reaction to offensive images and accusations, we will be forever divided. Trump recently set another trap for the Left, and we shouldn’t take the bait. We must not react to Trump’s demagoguing on “Socialism” by engaging in divisive debates about the differences between Socialism and “Neoliberalism.”
We should set our ideological and theological differences aside and focus on shared public policy objectives. We should remember that our primary cause as progressives is “justice for all.” We should not divide up by race or call for justice for our own people without regard for the rights of others. Not only should we be consistent in our treatment of others we should also be merciful and thoughtful.
Justice and mercy go hand in hand. There is no justice without consideration for the rights of the accused. We should be willing to listen to both sides before we jump to conclusions.
I don’t know if Ralph Northam should remain Governor of Virginia, but I think he has made a decent case. Our enemies threw an offensive photograph at us, but how much does that picture tell us about who Ralph Northam is today? Even if we are right about what it says about him back then, given the circumstances, we may want to consider whether and when we can forgive someone for what they did thirty-five years ago?