What should we do about Ralph Northam and other former racists?


Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam fucked up when he was a young man. And now the debate raging is whether or not he ought to resign.

I grew up in the deeply racist rural working-class South in the ’60s and ’70s and everyone was a bigot. The N-word was just the regular old word for black person. My grandfather would sit and bitch at the TV anytime a black actor appeared – “they just have to be on everything these days, don’t they?” There was some suspicion his father had been in the Klan, but “it wasn’t racist – they just went around trying to help people out.”

Donald Trump pulled 73.4% of the county’s presidential vote in 2016, so not much has changed, apparently.

I didn’t know there was any other way (although it sometimes felt not quite right, even when I was six years old). So I used that bad word, I told racist jokes, I internalized the assumption that non-whites were inferior and in most ways went about being a fairly typical Southern kid.

I’m horribly embarrassed by every second of it and I’ve written about what I consider my most shameful moment growing up. I regret I never got to apologize face to face.

Bottom line, if I were a public figure there are things in my past that would threaten my reputation if revealed, so I may have a slight grasp on where the governor is right now.

Do I think Northam should resign?

In this (and any similar situation) I tend to look at the following criteria.

  1. Did the perpetrator acknowledge, confess and apologize sincerely? Did he or she accept full responsibility? This is the first step. You have to realize what you did was wrong and own it 100%. This doesn’t mean you don’t also acknowledge the conditions that shaped your behavior. My upbringing certainly had a powerful effect on what I was and am today. But it is one thing to explain behavior and another to excuse it.
  2. Did the perpetrator atone? It’s essential to acknowledge and apologize, but that isn’t enough. You inflicted damage and simply saying the right words doesn’t undo it. As it says in the Bible, “by their fruits shall ye know them.” Can I look at your life and see the difference?

If I apologized for that awful moment when I was in high school, but a review of my life in the 40 years since didn’t indicate I’d taken it to heart and done anything about it, how much credibility would I have? I like to hope four decades of conversations about Civil Rights, years of being an instructor and professor willing to tackle these issues head-on and more than a decade writing about the issue here at S&R have exerted at least a little influence on those who have come into contact with me. I haven’t done enough and I never will, but I keep up the campaign.

get out of racism free card jeff tiedrichI don’t know Gov. Northam, but what I read suggests he’s lived a public life consistent with pro-Civil Rights beliefs and that as an office holder his policies have sought to benefit America’s minorities. In other words, he reformed. By his deeds we know him, and what we know is that he isn’t the young man in blackface anymore.

His career stands in stark contrast to many in the partisan opposition, who seem to think that ugly photograph is a “get out of racism free card.” By their fruits we know them, as well.

In other words, if all I have heard and read is accurate, I do not think Gov. Northam should resign. If more evidence emerges making clear he has been less than 100% forthcoming – ie, has he told the whole truth regarding other potential cases of racist behavior in his life? – then we’ll need to revisit the subject.

I don’t feel like anything I’m saying here is especially wise or insightful. From where I sit everything I’ve written is, or ought to be, obvious to a moral, ethical human being in a civil society.

Let’s all live like we’ve got some sense, then, shall we?


  • Kenneth O'Brien

    No not wise. But also not obvious, mora,l or ethical.

    Moral and ethical in 2019 USA context would be: Anybody with ANY of this in their past should skip the idea they should lead ANYTHING ever again. A lifetime of atoning by working phones and running to get coffee for candidates of color and candidates who have zero of this in their background sound about right.

    • That’s not a realistic or fair bar to set. Everyone – and I mean literally everyone – has done stupid shit in their lives that would be embarrassing and potentially disqualifying for a leadership position. Maybe it was racist, like going blackface or wearing a KKK costume. Maybe it was sexual harassment. Maybe it was bulling that gay kid or the kid in the wheelchair or the kid with a disfigured hand. Maybe it was shoplifting for a thrill, or underage drinking, or a drug addiction, or an anger problem that led to booze-fueled bar fights. The list goes on and on. I personally feel that blackface/KKK is always over the line, but other reasonable people might disagree.

      But you know what? Sometimes those mistakes can serve as the motivators for someone to be a better person, even a leader. Contrition can be a powerful motivator.

      No-one has a morally or ethically pure slate, and expecting that kind of purity from our leaders is both unrealistic and unfair.

  • Pingback: Beer & Burritos #2: What to do with Gov. Northam and the Sackler family? – Progressive Culture | Scholars & Rogues

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