What Ralph Northam’s Defenders Get Right—And Wrong

They believe that American culture’s punitive policing of decades-old behavior is out of control. But it doesn’t follow that Northam should stay.

Jay Paul / Reuters

After Virginia Governor Ralph Northam apologized for appearing in a photograph that featured one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, I argued that he could best serve the public by resigning in a way that reaffirmed the hard-won stigma against white supremacy. Others calling for his resignation include Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Eric Holder, the NAACP, the Virginia GOP, the Virginia House Democrats, Representatives Kevin McCarthy and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Al Sharpton.

An article published in The Nation went so far as to declare, “There Is No Argument for Ralph Northam to Keep His Job.” And it may seem that way within certain filter bubbles in American life. In reality, however, the controversy has prompted the publication and broadcast of many substantive dissents from the proposition that Northam ought to resign, grounded in a belief that our culture’s punitive policing of decades-old behavior is out of control.

Some would have us dismiss those dissents. “I’m pissed off that I have to write about the soon-to-be-former Virginia governor,” Elie Mystal declares in that Nation article:

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 a majority of black Virginians disagree. A Washington Post poll conducted last week found that Virginians are evenly divided about whether their governor ought to resign, 47 percent to 47 percent, and that “Northam counts higher support among black residents—who say he should remain in office by a margin of 58 percent to 37 percent—than among whites, who are more evenly divided.”

Evidently, the case against resignation is much more convincing to vast swaths of the country, including African Americans most directly affected by the governor, than one would expect from prevailing media coverage of the controversy. Indeed, the dissenters from the prevailing position among media elites advance many compelling arguments. Below I’ll air the best of them before explaining why, in the end, I still think Northam should resign.

Northam’s defenders all point out that whatever the truth about the photograph that ran on his medical-school yearbook page, it happened 35 years ago, and his critics have not pointed to evidence of racist behavior in the ensuing decades.

The journalist Zaid Jilani argues that those mitigating factors, coupled with the governor’s apology, would have spared him in bygone eras, as “we have all done things we’re not proud of in the past, and our most offensive and obnoxious moments do not encapsulate our lives,” but that today America’s elite is regressing “to a secular version of old puritanical norms, whereby sinners are branded for life and there are political points to be scored for casting them into hellfire.”

What’s more, he argues, progressives who insist that “an offensive gesture from 35 years ago should permanently end a man’s career in politics” are advancing an ethos in tension with the one they encourage with respect to the criminal-justice system, where they insist that the aim “should be rehabilitation, not punishment,” and often argue “that criminal behaviour is forged by social influences, rather than the result of bad choices by flawed individuals.”

In Jilani’s estimation, the public should hate the sin but love the sinner, especially because he believes that “free will is limited if not nonexistent, and therefore we should not hate or loathe people who commit antisocial or immoral behaviour. Instead, we should try to understand the natural processes that lead to that behaviour.”

As for the politics of anti-racism, Jilani believes that voters should focus on the substantive ways that a politician’s actions affect marginalized groups. “As obnoxious, offensive, and racist as it is to dress up in a Klan hood and don blackface, these are symbolic acts,” he writes. “Northam did not promote or pursue policy decisions to harm the lives of African Americans. In fact, he has done the opposite,” pushing policies that disproportionately benefit African Americans.

Finally, he said, symbolic acts that elicit draconian punishments from opinion elites are rooted in contested norms socialized into kids raised in the upper classes, but rejected or absent in many middle-, working-, and lower-class communities, likely including the rural, working-class milieu where Northam grew up. “The Left claims to believe in compassion and rehabilitation—and purports to represent the broad working class,” he concludes. “The more it demands the personal destruction of individuals who committed offensive but symbolic acts, the more hollow these representations appear.”

In The New York Times, the columnist Jamelle Bouie adeptly locates the origins of blackface in virulent white supremacy, then goes on to express a common view: “Blackface is so thoroughly associated with the worst of American racism,” he wrote, “that we should expect immediate condemnation of politicians and public figures who have any association with it, even if it’s a decades-old offense.”

Coleman Hughes responded that “a retroactive zero-tolerance policy toward anyone who has ever worn blackface” is untenable in practice and at odds with the actual behavior of the progressive left, insofar as its members do not condemn all sorts of public figures known to have donned blackface.

His examples:

Jimmy Fallon did blackface to impersonate Chris Rock; Jimmy Kimmel did it to impersonate Karl Malone and Oprah Winfrey; SNL’s Fred Armisen did it to impersonate President Obama; Ashton Kutcher did brownface to depict a stereotypical Indian man in a Popchips commercial; Robert Downey Jr. wore blackface in Tropic Thunder; Rob McElhenney and Kaitlin Olson, who play “Mac” and “Dee” on the critically acclaimed sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, have both donned blackface in the show. And there’s no reason to stop at the living.

As demonstrated in a recent New York Times op-ed, “‘Mary Poppins’ and a Nanny’s Shameful Flirting with Blackface,” the grave provides no protection from the professionally offended class. To that end, perhaps we should posthumously repudiate Judy Garland, Gene Wilder, and Shirley Temple, all of whom did blackface. In the sphere of music, we could start by “canceling” living artists such as Joni Mitchell, continue by denouncing deceased artists like Frank Zappa, and then finish by boycotting the Metropolitan Opera for portraying Othello in blackface until as recently as 2015. At the risk of giving the Twitter mob too many ideas, I’ll stop there. But suffice it to say that the list goes on.

He urges more nuance in media discussions of blackface, pointing out that the “umbrella term” as it is presently used “covers everything from a white adult performing a nauseatingly racist caricature of a black person, to a pair of 12-year-old girls—who had probably never heard the word ‘minstrelsy,’ much less studied the history of minstrelsy—having fun with makeup at a sleepover.”

That the word “is used in the media to describe both scenarios,” he concludes, “should not obscure the fact that, ethically speaking, they belong in separate universes,” a position shared and expounded on by my colleague John McWhorter.

For Sam Harris, the controversy surrounding Northam is one of many that illustrate the uncertainty that surrounds “the whole process of redemption for people in our society,” where there’s no settled way to gain forgiveness.

“What is the path back?” he asked.

He believes an apology should be accepted when people can show that they are intelligibly different than they were at the time they committed the transgression:

You take any of these politicians who have something in their backstory that is ugly—my feeling is all there has to be is a transparent account of how you are now different and can actually honestly look back and say, “Yeah, I’m as embarrassed by that as you think I should be. That does not represent how I view the world now.” But the spirit of the time … is to never accept any of that. There is no apology good enough, or the most cynical possible interpretation of your apology is assumed. The only reason you’re apologizing is because you want to save your job … Why is it that the apology isn’t good enough, where by all appearances it is a sincere apology? Where there is no link to real racism? There’s no link to I want to live in a society where black people have it harder than white people. If that’s who you are, if you’re a legit racist, that’s fine—we can understand why we want to boycott your business or have nothing to do with you. There should be massive social pressure against those kinds of noxious political commitments. But if someone misspeaks or it’s an off-color joke and they weren’t trying to defend anyone and they’re just, they wish they could take it back …

His interlocutor, Joe Rogan, added, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if that’s how we treated these public-shaming events … if we gave someone an opportunity to say, “That’s what I did, this is how awful I feel, I’d never do that again, I was a different person, that was 20 years ago …” And they would reply, “Hey, anyone could be you. Thank you for being honest about who you are now … for evolving … for expressing yourself in a way that maybe others who have also committed unsavory or unfortunate acts in the past can feel relieved that you’ve grown and evolved and become a better person. And that you’re different now. You are the product of all your experiences. You’re not stuck where you are when you were 16 forever. It’s not a scarlet letter that you keep for life.”

On the Fifth Column podcast, Kmele Foster expressed similar concerns about the reaction to Northam: “Even in the worst-case scenario––maybe he was racist at the time, maybe he had a lot of retrograde ideas back then and was prone to say and do dastardly things—if he has a history of this, it’s consequential, but if his recent history is something else, if he has evolved on these issues, as many Americans have, and hopefully more will … isn’t that what we want?”

What bothers him is “the fact that you can’t be forgiven, that there can’t be redemption, and we will never forget,” he said. “There’s something super-creepy and insidious about that … There’s something about having a sufficient amount of grace, allowing people to evolve, that is necessary if we want to live in a better world.”

His interlocutor, the journalist Brendan O’Neill, added that what bothered him most about the controversy was what Freddie deBoer once referred to as “offense archaeology,” where “you’re constantly digging in people’s pasts for proof that they did something bad or said something bad or dressed in a particular way, which I just think is a really depressing aspect of modern culture.”

You can’t pin something on them today, “so you go digging and digging until you find a photo or a comment or a tweet, in relation to someone like Kevin Hart … I think that’s a very bitter, vindictive, nasty way of doing politics, and it’s incredibly fatalistic, because the suggestion is always that people can’t really change.”

He called it ruthless and unforgiving to maintain a culture where “if you had these views or did this thing or said that thing, that’s you forever, that’s you defined, and there’s very little you can do to make up for that, except for maybe flagellate in public and issue groveling apologies for the rest of your life. I just think it’s a complete waste of everyone’s energy to be digging for that stuff.”

On most matters, I am in agreement with the critics of outrage culture. I am loath to judge people today for behavior of 35 years ago, especially when there is evidence that their bygone transgressions are at odds with their current outlook. I favor an ethos that prioritizes rehabilitation and redemption above punishment. I believe that anti-racism focuses too much on symbols or psychology at its peril, that making every bygone instance of blackface a career-ender is every bit as untenable as Coleman Hughes persuasively shows, that apparently earnest apologies from people who can credibly show they’ve changed should be accepted, that grace toward people who previously held noxious views helps to hasten the demise of bigotry, and that “offense archaeology” is often an objectionable enterprise that leads us to waste time and energy on matters that help no one.

Indeed, I am sometimes tempted to respond to our era’s excesses by turning against every call for outrage, coerced apology, resignation under pressure, or mass vilification. And my argument that “it is not fair for Northam to tell Virginians—especially black Virginians—that he’ll stay on in the state’s most powerful job when he acknowledges that he has lost their trust” is undermined by the polling data showing that a majority of black Virginians want him to stay in the job.

Still, I don’t believe that outrage at violations of social taboos is utterly worthless—just vastly, flagrantly overused. Nor do I believe that our society is capable of abandoning that mode entirely—only curtailing its frequency and excesses until it is reserved for the most superlatively appropriate controversies, where the behavior at issue is anomalously objectionable, the perpetrator is unusually deserving of scrutiny, and the sanction is ostensibly useful, not just punitive. When I review the details of Northam’s case with that in mind, it still strikes me as an appropriate occasion for a resignation, though a closer call than I thought before compiling the dissenting arguments.

These features of the controversy inform my judgment:

  • Ralph Northam is a politician, a job that has always warranted more scrutiny than what ought to be imposed on a typical citizen of the United States. As a sitting governor, he wields significant discretionary power over literal matters of life and death; his job effectiveness depends in part on formally representing everyone in a multiethnic polity; he is called on to discharge symbolic duties as a figurehead and leader; and he is obligated to do what best serves the public, even in instances when it may be unfair to him personally.
  • For those reasons and more, it is orders of magnitude less problematic to call for him to resign than to demand it of someone in the vast majority of other jobs, especially when the transgression in question is symbolic in nature. One can oppose the vast majority of outrage firings while still believing that when people hold one of the highest public leadership roles in this country, they powerfully shape society’s norms, values, and taboos, and should be held to a higher standard.
  • I think that the vast majority of symbolic fights are overvalued—but also that it is unusually valuable, as these things go, to conserve the hard-won norm that white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan are utterly toxic in American life. In fact, I would say that no symbol in American life is more deserving of harsh stigma and taboo status than the KKK, a depraved, murderous terrorist organization that understandably evokes fear and visceral revulsion from many Americans, even today. Northam is singularly positioned to uphold and conserve that taboo, while his replacement could, in principle, discharge all his other duties just as well as he does.
  • And I am frankly baffled by commentators who seem to treat blackface as the greater offense here. Granted, the demeaning, caricatured blackface on display in the yearbook photo is the most noxious variety—this is no SNL impressionist donning makeup to play Barack Obama, and that only deepens the case against Northam, distinguishing his photo from many of the examples that Coleman Hughes marshals. Still, there is nothing worse than a murderous terrorist group synonymous with white supremacy. There’s value in conserving the stigma against it as surely as there’s value in Germans maintaining the stigma against Nazis.
  • This isn’t an instance of judging people by current standards for behavior that wasn’t understood to be wrong at the time. The odiousness of the KKK was known in the mid-1980s as surely as it is today, whatever its resonance in the milieu of that medical school. And while wearing a KKK costume doesn’t necessarily mean that one shares the beliefs of the organization—while we would absolutely want to know, for example, whether the context was a costume party where the guests were told, “Come dressed as the most odious American you can conjure”—this is an image that was later deliberately enshrined without any such context in a medical-school yearbook, where the photo was certain to disturb many of the people who would subsequently look through it. What’s more, even now, the only ostensibly mitigating context offered is the “it wasn’t me” defense, which raises more questions than it answers.

All that is why, despite acknowledging all the strong arguments on the other side, I still believe that Northam would best serve his state and his country by resigning, and that doing so need not fuel outrage culture in less extraordinary cases.

I do not suggest, imply, or believe that decades-old mistakes should be routinely dug up and aired; that he is the same person he was 35 years ago; that his bygone mistakes, whatever they are, should never be forgiven; or that he cannot ever be redeemed. In fact, if accounts of his subsequent career are accurate, I regard him as already redeemed, and I grant that it may well have been better for everyone if the photograph had never emerged in the first place.

But none of that changes the fact that the photo damaged his ability to govern well, that staying on after its emergence undermines one of the most defensibly valuable taboos in American life, and that resigning would advance the worthy end of conserving that taboo. One can call on a politician to resign as an act of symbolic contrition for a widely known transgression (or to advance the public good even if he did nothing wrong) without implying that it ought to permanently stain him or end his career, let alone set a standard that applies to folks who aren’t elected leaders.

That is the nature of my call for his resignation.