Northam’s Career Shouldn’t Be Destroyed By His (Awful) Photo In Blackface

Northam’s Career Shouldn’t Be Destroyed By His (Awful) Photo In Blackface

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's photo in blackface from medical school is racist by any standard, but it should not disqualify him from public service.
David Marcus
By

The firestorms won’t stop for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. No sooner had he he said that babies already born could be aborted, when a 1984 photo of him from a medical school yearbook surfaced, showing him in a photo either wearing black face or in a Ku Klux Klan robe, depending on which idiot he is in the picture. By any standard this is racist and bad, and the governor has apologized, but should it cost him his job?

Let’s be clear about one thing, by the standards of today’s left there is no question that this photo is disqualifying and that by those standards he must step down. Brett Kavanaugh’s yearbook, and the controversy surrounding it make this clear. In this case it isn’t vague, Northam is obviously engaged in racist behavior, he admits it, this isn’t a clue, or innuendo, as with Kavanaugh, but photographic evidence. Oh, and his yearbook quote was about enjoying beer.

If a photo of a Republican politician in blackface from 1984 (or 1954 for that matter) emerged, the entire media would be out with the tar and feathers. And maybe they will be with Northam. Maybe Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon will wax poetic about Northam’s grave sin and how nothing has really changed much. These are the rules the left wants. But they aren’t the right rules. In fact, they are seeds of little but destruction.

And they know it. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw says that Northam’s whole life has been about the opposite of racism and that nobody would want to have their college conduct examined, he tells us when he was in the army he was a handful––good thing the army doesn’t have yearbooks. The point is that even Democrats know they are wrong about this, much as they love to pounce on the right.

In 1984, one of the most popular television shows in America featured a race car with a confederate battle flag on its roof. Just eight years earlier, when Northam was 16, Gene Wilder performed in blackface in the movie “Silver Streak.” In the early 1990s, actor Hugh Laurie appeared in traditional blackface in an episode of “Jeeves and Wooster.” None of this is to excuse Northam’s actions, but rather to put them in relevant context.

I have written a lot about the rules surrounding racism in today’s United States, which are in a state of complete disarray. The most important question is which racist acts or statements should be disqualifying for politicians, actors, professors, and others. As a conservative, I cannot support the idea that this photograph of a 25-year-old Northam, on its own, means he is barred from public service for the rest of his life.

Conservatives should be forgiven a moment of schadenfreude over the revelation. Take the moment; enjoy it, tweet, revel, and meme––go to town. But after the party, remember this isn’t what we stand for. Northam’s entire professional career should not face the wrecking ball based on a stupid and racist costume that was almost certainly meant to be a joke (albeit a bad one). He has apologized, now, too.

The opportunity here is not to take Northam down, but to show progressives the folly of their ways. To teach them that their unforgiving dredging of the past for incidents of insufficient wokeness will wreak havoc on their own, as well as on others. This is an opportunity to commit to the idea that forgiveness, especially for an instance of racism so long ago, must be possible.

The Virginia Assembly leaders have rightly said that this is a “deeply disturbing and offensive photograph in need of an immediate explanation by the Governor.” That’s exactly right. And it must go farther than his apology. If this was a Klan meeting, he needs to resign. If it was a stupid and offensive costume, he needs to apologize (and has). But if it is the latter, which it looks like it is, any calls for his resignation would be going too far.

One of the great things about being Gen X is that my teenage years were never caught on video, entertaining as that might be. As we go forward, everyone under 30 has an archive of material to be searched for destructive incidents. Those without discoverable sin are either lucky or a Luddite. A world in which we seek to destroy anyone who becomes relevant with opposition research is not a world we should seek.

The photograph is racist, full stop. A 25-year-old, even in 1984 should have known better. But is it beyond forgiveness? We must have harsh penalties for racism, but if we use these harsh penalties for 35-year-old jokes, or deeply tasteless costumes caught on camera, we risk minimizing far more serious, present racism, by failing to distinguish between the severity of different actions. If this was nothing more than a joke or costume, Northam should be allowed to survive it. Disqualifying him for it makes disqualifying accusations of racism a mile wide and an inch deep. And that isn’t a good approach to fighting racism.

David Marcus is the Federalist's New York Correspondent and the Artistic Director of Blue Box World, a Brooklyn based theater project. Follow him on Twitter, @BlueBoxDave.

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