In hindsight, that last exchange was more loaded than it first appeared.
Vann R. Newkirk II: Ralph Northam’s mistake
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.
Conor Friedersdorf: Why Ralph Northam should resign
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.