A little more than a year ago, the Democrat Ralph Northam handily defeated his Republican rival, Ed Gillespie, in Virginia’s gubernatorial election. After a brutal campaign in which Gillespie, a longtime Washington lobbyist once seen as a moderate, sought victory by echoing the tone and tactics of President Donald Trump, Northam said the result was a repudiation of bigotry.
“Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry, and to end the politics that have torn this country apart,” Northam said on Election Night in November 2017. Early in the campaign, during a Democratic primary debate, Northam declared, “It shouldn’t matter the color of one’s skin, it shouldn’t matter their sexual orientation, it shouldn’t matter the country that they come from or the religions that they practice … We are inclusive in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Gillespie had run ads linking Northam to images of menacing, tattooed Latino men identified as belonging to the gang MS-13, and attacked Northam for wanting to take “our” Confederate statues down. When the Virginia Republican Party criticized Northam for “turning his back on his own family’s heritage” by supporting the removal of the statues, Northam retorted, “I feel fine about turning my back on white supremacy.”
In hindsight, that last exchange was more loaded than it first appeared.
Last Friday, Northam was forced to admit that he had worn blackface. After conservative media outlets published a photograph from Northam’s medical-school yearbook of two individuals, one in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, the governor apologized and acknowledged that, on a separate occasion, he had worn blackface in order to dress up as Michael Jackson for Halloween. He maintains that he cannot recall if he is either man in the yearbook photo.
For many black Americans, Northam’s admissions evoke a particular horror: the long-standing legacy of racism in the medical profession, in which black patients were either exploited for scientific advancement or denied treatment based on widespread biological fallacies about differences between people of African and European descent. Blackface entertainment reassured white Americans that black people were simple creatures who benefited most from subservience to whites; it has survived into the modern era as a way to question black humanity under the guise of humor.
A teenage transgression might have been more forgivable, but by 1984, Northam was a medical professional, a physician, someone sworn to do no harm. Northam’s actions amount to cruel mockery of the very people who made his governorship possible. They also illustrate the difficult choices black voters are so often forced to make: between those who disdain black people publicly and those who may do so privately but are beholden to them for power.
Scores of Northam’s Democratic allies have called for his resignation; Republicans have gleefully attacked both Northam and the Democratic Party as hypocrites on matters of racism. For Northam, the experience must feel like a nightmare: Should he have to resign in disgrace because of a mistake made three decades ago, which he now admits was wrong? After all, hasn’t Northam been a progressive governor sensitive to matters of racial discrimination? Isn’t that more important than his personal behavior 30 years ago?
These are interesting questions, but irrelevant to whether Northam should remain in office. The substance of Northam’s soul is not at issue. It’s one thing to forgive friends or loved ones, or anyone really, for engaging in wrongful behavior in the past, given the scale of the offense and the expression of genuine contrition. But Northam is a public official, the governor of a state populated by some 8 million people, and should be held to a higher standard of behavior.
More is at stake than Northam’s career or ambitions. With the rise of Donald Trump, social barriers against overt expressions of prejudice have eroded. The president himself attacks black athletes protesting police brutality as “sons of bitches” and calls for them to be fired; he smears all Muslims as terrorists; and he regularly characterizes undocumented immigrants from Latin America as vermin, diseased, or violent and dangerous. The result is that everyone from child bullies to white supremacists uses the president’s name as a taunt with which to torment people of color.
Worse than the president’s behavior, however, are his policies. The president abandoned Puerto Rico in the aftermath of a terrible storm that devastated the island; he has sought to purge hundreds of thousands of Latin American, African, and Caribbean immigrants while denigrating their country of origin; he has retreated from defending the voting rights of nonwhite citizens and has sought to dilute their political power; he has encouraged police to violate the constitutional rights of Americans while preventing the federal government from investigating those violations; he has imposed a policy of systemic child abuse at the border in order to dissuade Hispanic migrants from invoking their right to seek asylum in the United States.
The distinction between interpersonal racism, or individual acts of cruelty or prejudice, and systemic racism, the embrace of policies that harm people of color, should not be dismissed—with politicians, the latter is more dangerous. Northam has engaged in one but not the other; Trump is a champion of both. His entire political career has been a vocal rebellion against the public taboo of expressions of undisguised prejudice in the name of rejecting “political correctness.”
That’s why Republican condemnations of Northam ring hollow: The GOP’s apparent position is that Democrats who engage in racist behavior must resign; Republicans who engage in racist behavior can be president. Yet by the same token, no one purporting to oppose racism can set the bar for acceptable behavior by elected officials at the standard exemplified by the man in the White House.
Nevertheless, neither the fact of Trump’s presidency nor Gillespie’s racist appeals excuse Northam’s behavior, just as his behavior does not exonerate Gillespie or Trump. If Northam remains governor, he gives license to any number of future scoundrels to remain in office despite engaging in bigotry against their constituents. There is more at risk here than Northam’s political career.
If Northam sincerely believes in the anti-racist principles he now espouses, then he should understand how important it is that the weakened social stigma against overt racism not be further undermined. That means that anti-racists must hold themselves to a higher standard than those who engage in discrimination, whether personally or through policy. Northam should go, not simply because of what he did, but because it is the only way to show his constituents that he truly turned his back on white supremacy.
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