A week ago, after racist photos from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook surfaced, and he admitted to wearing shoe polish on his face for a dance contest, it seemed certain he would resign. Phrases like “clinging to his job” and “hanging on by a thread” permeated the media. Yet Northam persisted. Now it seems extremely likely that he will survive the scandal with his governorship intact.
The cynical explanation for this is that, somewhat amazingly, the two Democrats in line to succeed Northam, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, both immediately faced potentially resignable scandals of their own. Fairfax faced a credible rape allegation and Herring admitted he’d worn blackface. It has not been a good week for Virginia Democrats. The result, should all three embattled men step down, would be the Republican Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates becoming governor.
But even before his potential successors fell into their own scandals, Northam showed little sign that he would resign. As nearly every Democratic elected official in the country, from dogcatcher to senator, gravely insisted he must step away, he said no. A few days after the photos emerged, a Morning Consult poll showed Northam lost significant support from the scandal, but it showed something else, too. Fifty percent of Virginia Democrats still approved of him, and only 25 percent disapproved. Further, any erosion of support from Republicans was just as likely to have been caused by his controversial abortion remarks, now overshadowed.
Now even The New York Times seems ready to defend Northam. Their in-house “conservative” Bret Stephens published an article begging forgiveness for him. It’s a bit odd that Stephens’ defense of the governor didn’t run until it became clear he might be replaced by a Republican, but that’s probably just an accident. I’m sure his defense of Northam was ready to run last week, but the Times just didn’t get around to it.
We see here a disconnect between politicians and media types versus average Americans over a central question surrounding racism: What racist actions are disqualifying for public service? Those in power thought Northam had crossed that line, but those he served were not so sure. Notwithstanding the rush to judgment of professional pontificators, many Virginians apparently did not find a 35-year-old racist incident sufficient to end the governor’s career.
In some sense, the easiest decision for Northam would have been to resign. But as he pointed out, that would have left his entire reputation as that of a disgraced racist. Given that he had committed no impeachable crimes, his only real chance to redeem himself was to stay in office. So it should come as no surprise that this is the option he chose.
Shakespeare tells us that the quality of mercy is not strained, but Northam’s aides have decided it comes with homework. On Friday it was reported that the governor had been given reading assignments, including the novel “Roots” and an essay about reparations for slavery by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Northam further pledged to spend the remainder of his term focused racial issues.
This effort to better acquaint Northam with our country and his state’s vicious history of racism met no small amount of eye rolling on left and right. The former see it as insufficient punishment, the latter as a kind of re-education camp. But isn’t this actually how it’s supposed to work? A privileged white man is confronted with his racism that even he was unaware of, he is contrite, and he better educates himself and dedicates himself to fighting racism.
One thing the purveyors of privilege theory have always insisted is that it is not punitive, but educational. The purpose of recognizing and confessing racial privilege is not guilt, but a chance to better understand oneself and one’s place in our racialized society. That seems to be exactly what Northam is doing.
Northam’s unlikely survival as governor is an opportunity for the country. Had he stepped aside, his racist actions would have been punished, but not dealt with. Over the past week, more and more troubling photos from the past have surfaced, and we must think about how and why such casual racism was ever accepted. But more than that, we must ask ourselves if we are complicit in systems of racism. The answer is probably yes.
If we are to fix systemic racism, it cannot be done from a place of fear. Rather, it will require honesty and openness. Northam’s second chance isn’t just his second chance; it’s everybody’s. His forgiveness doesn’t merely save his career — it shows all of us that redemption and progress are possible. In the end, the right thing happened, and we may take from it not just hope, but a responsibility to understand, as Northam surely now does, that we are not immune to racism, nor are we powerless to fight it.