Ralph Northam Should Stay: An Anti-Racist Dissent to the Campaign to Purge Virginia’s Governor

by Rich Rubenstein on February 5, 2019 · 6 comments

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Here is an article that I am afraid to write, which is why it seems important to write it.

I fear criticizing the campaign to force the governor of Virginia to retire, because I know that people reading the critique, including some I love and honor, may consider it racist or insufficiently sensitive to the feelings and needs of people of color. Even so, I am compelled to say that I do not think that Ralph Northam should resign his office.

As we now know, Northam’s medical school yearbook page, created in 1984, contains a photo of two people posed as characters in what one might call a Southern immorality play: one man is in blackface, and the other wears the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. One of these figures may or may not be the current governor; it really doesn’t matter, since the pictorial display, which was supposed to be amusing, is a piece of racist trash that treats organized violence against Black people as a joke. So benighted was the school’s culture thirty years after the issuance of Brown v. Board of Education, that this outrage was apparently not recognized as such either by Northam, his classmates, or the school administration.

Then, there is another yearbook page, published three years earlier when Northam graduated from the Virginia Military Institute. That page bestows the nickname “coonman” on him – a racist term whose use here seems particularly obscure, considering that the governor-to-be attended a desegregated, majority-African American high school at a time when white racists in Virginia were boycotting the public schools. Northam doesn’t remember how or why he acquired this nickname, but there it is.

These facts aren’t in doubt. Their doubtful product, however, is the conclusion drawn by virtually every would-be leader of the Democratic Party and not a few Republicans that the penalty for this 35-year old horror should be self-impeachment. Regardless of his rather impressive record of achievements on behalf of people of color, working families, and vulnerable sectors of the Virginia population – and irrespective of the fact that nobody who knows him today considers him a racist – Northam should – no, must – resign his office.

Why? The reasons given by those insisting on his ouster boil down to two: (1) His yearbook page constitutes a gross and painful insult to African-Americans everywhere, including the Commonwealth of Virginia. (2) People of all races feel betrayed by the revelation of his past misbehavior, with the result that he has lost their trust and cannot govern effectively.

Actually, this turns out to be one reason, something analogous to the revelation by one’s spouse that he or she committed adultery or some other hurtful misdeed years ago, and did not confess it until confronted by the evidence. Even though the offense is decades old, it hurts like hell now – and hurts more because someone you trusted to be honest and true covered up (or at least did not openly acknowledge) the misbehavior.

Have you ever had occasion to advise a friend suffering this sort of hurt? I’m old enough to have been in this position several times, and my advice has always been, “Come to terms with the past, but try to focus on the present.” If you have reason right now to doubt a spouse’s honesty and trustworthiness or his/her commitment to decent principles and principled actions, then, by all means think about a divorce. But prioritize what has happened in the time since the misdeed. if you want to punish your partner now for what he or she did to you then, you aren’t seeking justice. You’re being driven to act by a traumatic injury, which means that you are living in the past.

In the case of the Governor, of course, all this is further complicated by the fact that both the injury and the proposed punishment involve politics. The oppression of African-Americans and other people of color in the United States has rightly been called “slow genocide.” Imagine a yearbook photo, claiming to be amusing, in which the figure in blackface is replaced by a Nazi-style caricature of a Jewish banker and the KKK figure by a gas chamber! Even in this case, I would argue, the malefactor’s qualification to hold public office should depend on who he is now, not who he was then.

Alone among the Democratic politicians I know, former Virginia Congressman Jim Moran has argued that Northam’s case presents “a redemption issue,” and that “public shamings don’t solve problems.” If one thinks about people who commit criminal offenses and then return to society, there is a strong propensity to say that those who have paid their dues and have reformed should be treated like anyone else; the books are wiped clean. Well, the Governor has clearly repented. Furthermore, he has done more for Black and working class Virginians than most of the politicians now calling for his head. There may, indeed, be further dues to be paid to make up for his past misbehavior, but exile from public life seems a particularly useless form of retribution.

Even so, some will say that forcing Northam to resign (like forcing Al Franken to give up his Senate seat for alleged sexual misconduct) serves a deterrent role. By demonstrating how abhorrent certain types of misbehavior are, “public shaming” and punishment will convince others not to misbehave in similar ways.

Really? Like other arguments based on a deterrence theory, this one is valid only to the extent that people would behave in a malign way if it were not for the possibility of this sort of punishment. But harsh punishments have not made racist caricatures and jokes taboo; a great (and long overdue) shift in social attitudes over the past half century has produced that result. If Ralph Northam retains his office, there is no evidence that Virginians would revert to racist norms.

Even as I write this, however, I am aware that the Governor is probably going to be out of a job quite soon. Why? Because the unspoken reason for this putative purge is also “political” in the narrow sense. Democratic politicians fear that unless some symbolic pound of flesh is extracted for Northam’s earlier misbehavior, people of color and anti-racist whites will lose their enthusiasm for voting Democratic and (shades of Hillary!) stay home in the next election. Moreoever, Northam’s successor, if he resigned, would be the African-American lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax – a substitution that would provide further psychic compensation for past injustices, thus assuring the loyalty of Black and progressive voters and keeping Virginia Blue in 2020.

I get this, of course. But, as someone who has devoted considerable time and energy to fighting racism, I don’t believe that symbolic gestures solve most social problems. The imperative is to accelerate the anti-racist shift in American thinking and practice, to make it as universal as possible, and to make it permanent. How can this be done? Not, in my view, by punishing former racists for thoughts and acts for which they have repented and made significant, if indirect, compensation.

Eliminating racism means extirpating its causes, which include not only ignorance and prejudice, but poverty, precarity, and social humiliation. Socioeconomic fears and personal insecurities have long inclined white people in America to consider people of color a threat to their welfare and status. Furthermore, a genuinely non-racist society would never tolerate the sort of poverty and near-poverty among people of color that daily devastates their communities.

If we aspire to eliminate the causes of racism, firing Ralph Northam seems a diversion at best. As painful and insulting as those yearbook pictures are, it’s time to get serious about the continuing economic pain and social insults that keep racism in America alive. The next order of business, for Governor Northam and for us, should be to develop effective programs to confront and transform this racist legacy.

 

 

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

David Heymsfeld February 5, 2019 at 8:47 pm

Rich:
Well done. Your argument needs to be part of the discussion, and hasn’t been.
An issue I have with let him stay is that he hasn’t given us a good presentation of what his racial views were in the 1980s and how they changed. After his second press conference all he has admitted to is blackface for the dance contest, when he didn’t realize that blacks were offended by blackface.
The cynic in me has a thought that his recent pro-black positions are the positions he needs to take to get elected as a Democrat in Virginia.

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Jayne Docherty February 5, 2019 at 11:52 pm

Thank you for sharing this Rich. I agree and I disagree with your argument. Resignation should not be the focus of our responses to Northam’s situation, but that does not mean he should not resign.

Ten members of the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee spent about two hours Saturday discussing how to respond to this situation. For a lot of local historical reasons, our chair is not authorized to speak for the entire committee and even the executive committee is loathe to stake a single stance for the full committee. Harrisonburg is very racially and ethnically diverse and small enough that we can actually build relationships and alliances that cross identity lines. Our City Council is currently comprised of two older white men (one R and one D), an African American man and woman (both D) and a Latino (D). They were all in a retreat over the weekend so we had minimal contact with them as we were deliberating. The group that met included two African American party and city leaders.

From the start we understood that this was not just about resignation or no resignation and not just about behaviors from thirty plus years ago. We did craft a statement and we agreed that we were each free to say what we wanted about the issue of resignation. Here is what I wrote after that meeting.

“I spent a couple of hours with members of the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee today discussing how to respond to the situation with Governor Ralph Northam. This is my PERSONAL opinion. Putting all of the energy into whether or not he should resign misses the point and may not be helpful. Racism is systemic. Offensive behaviors get attention but we really need to hold our leaders accountable for their failure to address the systems of racism. On this score, the Governor has a mixed record at best.

He thinks each community needs to make its own decisions about memorials but he doesn’t accompany that with a statement that the communities need to have truth-telling processes while making those decisions. He fails to use his bully pulpit to promote truth-telling and ends up looking like he wants to push the hard stuff onto others. [In the Valley, Governor Northam is not popular because of his refusal to stand against the unnecessary and dangerous pipelines. And this is not unrelated to issues of race.] On the pipeline compressor station being put through an African American community, he fails… he had nothing to say about environmental racism and he took actions that made sure the vote went in favor of Dominion. [He removed two committee members who objected to the compressor station and replaced them with two that voted to approve it. The issues of environmental racism fell on deaf ears with him.]

I don’t know what is going to happen with the governor. If he resigns and all of those who pushed for his resignation sit back and congratulate themselves for “doing the right thing” we miss the point and miss an opportunity.

… I want the [HDC] to push for and participate in an honest conversation about the systemic racism that has shaped the Harrisonburg we have today. And I want elected leaders willing to make sure we have that conversation and willing to push for changes in policies and practices that sustain racist systems in Harrisonburg.”

I, too, spent a lot of time searching my conscience to figure out whether my anger with him about the pipeline was getting in the way of clear thinking about this situation. I concluded it was not. And, like you, I ran this through a moral and ethical framework. Here is what I wrote about that.

“I direct an academic program that includes a degree in restorative justice and I was raised in the Catholic Church where grace and forgiveness are ingrained into a sacrament. I find it hard to believe that Northam did not know (somewhere in his mind) that the VMI and med school yearbooks were out there. Restorative justice and the sacrament of reconciliation both require genuine repentance, taking full responsibility for the wrongs done, and a commitment to make things right as far as possible. Clearly, Northam had some life experience that moved him away from this kind of behavior. I suspect it might have been the military. But he did not take responsibility (and apparently is still trying to not take responsibility) for these events in his life. Shame can do that to people.

Had he gone (even privately) to Fairfax before the election and said, “You need to know these pictures and yearbook nicknames are out there. I want you to know that I am not that person anymore and I am deeply ashamed that those images and words are attached to me. I want to work with you to move the Commonwealth out of its dark history with slavery” this would be a whole different story. But he did not.

And yesterday’s news conference indicates that he is still not really taking responsibility. So, no I [do not think he should receive easy grace and forgiveness] and I am pretty sure that my feelings about the pipeline are not driving my response to this situation.”

For the reasons explained above I recognize that the pipeline and racism are not two separate issues. Northam has, in fact, participated in the “deepest form of racism — when white political leaders and white corporate leaders work together to marginalize the voices of communities of color that are disproportionately harmed by the siting of dangerous industries and toxic waste.”

In other words, I do not see in Ralph Northam “someone who has devoted considerable time and energy to fighting racism.” I see a man who has had power and authority and opportunities to promote genuinely anti-racist policies and practices and who has instead (like many white Americans) opted for dispensing charity and being polite and genteel.

I don’t just want Ralph Northam to resign. I want him to step into a different leadership role in Virginia. There are many ways he can do that. He can start by connecting to an organization like Coming to the Table (comingtothetable.org) and make connections with the descendants of the slaves owned by his family. Then he can use his connections with wealthy individuals and maybe even corporations like Dominion that have put so much into his political success to do something like create a foundation to train everyone in Virginia who wants to run a local truth-telling process in their community. Every community in Virginia has an ugly past that needs to be addressed. If he does something like this, then I will believe that he has addressed his racist upbringing and the privilege he was afforded that let him become who he is today. The privilege that lets him think that racism is about bad behavior rather than the maintenance of systems of oppression and privilege based on race.

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Patt Margitson February 6, 2019 at 2:44 pm

How about the editor’s choices

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Sara Cobb February 7, 2019 at 1:25 pm

Rich, I surely appreciate your thoughtful comments on this issue, and more than anything, I applaud your willingness to give your views that urge complex accounts of this situation, rather than simply ones. So thank you for speaking out.

We were talking about this issue last night in our Narrative Practice class, and considered the way he tells his story and what that reveals, and leaves unsaid, and how this story operates in the public. Specifically, we discussed the features of a conflict narrative are framed as “melodrama” where characters are caricatures of themselves, where there are victims that need “saving” and a father figure that is presumed to have the power to protect the weak, innocent, helpless heroine. Northam is the villain, the victim tied to the tracks are all the African Americans who have been horribly and persistently victimized by racism and structural violence, and white folks who are anti-racist are in the role of father figure, trying to protect the victim, and explaining to others what is morally correct. Melodrama is always a caricature of a conflict, and we need more tragic presentations—-as a white person, Northam could tell us about the history of racism in his family and how it played out in his life, in his hometown, and what that was like, and how he was taken in, and the shock of this revelation, for him, and what it has taught him, and how he plans to address racism, not just his, but in the public realm. This is not just about “bad judgement”—it is about the tendrils of racism that have wound themselves, over hundreds of years, around our lives. And this should be coupled with appreciation and respect for all the efforts of African Americans who work for social justice, to end racism, as indeed African Americans have struggled to end racism, while living in it—very complicated. They have not been passive victims, but active agents in the struggle. Northam could move to partner with them, in an effort to promote social justice. This would be a better story, whether or not he resigns.

In my view, this is a case of “virtue signaling” on the part of all the folks calling for his resignation—-this is a process whereby folks signal how morally correct they are, how much “better” they are than others. But if there is one thing that I have learned, as a white person, it is that I am NOT better. While I have never done what Northam has done, I have learned how much I do not know about racism, how insensitive I can be, how my privilege is likely to blinker me. I for one would prefer the “virtue signalling” to be “oves” and prefer this conversation to turn into a broader conversation about privilege and blinkers.

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John stern February 10, 2019 at 1:26 am

Rich, appreciate as always, your inciteful and courageous remarks. You always encourage one to re-evaluate and re-examine their thoughts. For me, forgiveness needs to be measured by actions. Whether the governor needs to resign or allow the electoral process to deliver its verdict does not seem to be the central issue.

The governor’s actions a number of decades past are unacceptable by standards then or now. His moral compass was sorely deficient. Therefore, how do we judge him today? Has he demonstrated through time that he understands how offensive, insensitive and inappropriate his actions were? According to Ms. Docherty, Northam’s record does not give one comfort that he understands or even is concerned that Virginia and the country still remain mired in the swamp of racism. If indeed, Northam has partnered with the corporate powers in Virginia at the expense of the African-American community and other Virginia minorities the bigotry has been exposed.

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Rich Rubenstein February 10, 2019 at 1:50 am

Thank you, John. What many of these comments say or imply is that Northam needs to do more than apologize. I agree. I think we need a new program to analyze, confront, and combat the legacy of racism in our country. 50 years done the Kerner Commission report we’re still struggling with this!

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