Northam is done, now what?
Mr. Northam, who apologized on Friday night, was increasingly isolated, but in phone calls on Saturday morning he said he had no recollection of the yearbook image of two men, one in blackface and the other in Ku Klux Klan robes. Late Saturday morning, his office announced that he would provide a statement to the news media at 2:30 p.m.– NYT
I voted for Northam in 2017 (and then I moved to MD and voted in another governor’s race the next year… states are weird), but it’s not like I’m that invested in the guy or really know that much about him. He ran against crazy Corey Stewart, for God’s sake.
But here’s the thing — the Democratic party is creating a standard where having a history of making or being a part of overtly racist jokes (and to an increasing degree, sexist ones) is a dealbreaker for being an important political leader. Increasingly, even if it’s not seen as an indicator of current values, it is seen as either (a) a lack of character/principle, and/or (b) indicative of a background and upbringing with insufficient understanding of people’s backgrounds and situations.
And honestly… is that so radical? Sure, well-intentioned middle-aged white guys from not-especially diverse backgrounds (hello!) are going to have to answer for the incredibly bad rap track they recorded in 1998. Maybe the situation is something voters can understand (youthful insensitivity? shifting values?), or maybe it isn’t (“my God, is that a Klan costume???“). But people care, and this is a democracy, so it matters. Deal with it.
Here’s what I think is the missed opportunity, though. I would love for Northam to take the opportunity to explain what really happened. I think these kinds of things need to be talked about, so people on all sides of various forms of historical (and modern day) racism can understand people’s situations as much as possible. For instance, as a random white dude, there was something really — I dunno, “helpful and informative” seems lame, but that’s kind of how it felt — to me about this Martellus Bennett piece on growing up and playing sports as a young black kid. I had kind of inferred a lot of this years ago, but just getting the nuances of his own perspective really humanized the whole situation. It just made it multi-dimensional and interesting and complex, and it made me smarter.
The story of “I’m the middle aged governor of Virginia and I am ostensibly not racist but I have dabbled in some craaaaa-aaaazy racist stuff, here’s why and how it happened” is going to cause a very different series of reactions, but I think the perspective is still potentially quite valuable, and the story somewhat complex. Now, I don’t say “complex” to give anybody an excuse, mind you. Lots of objectively terrible things are logistically complex even when morally simple. And racism as a whole, and the wide spectrum of racist acts, is complex as well.
I shouldn’t run for governor of anything, and I’ve said and done all kinds of dumb things in my life, but I certainly don’t have any bombs like this in my closet. But if I’m being intellectually honest, and I take some of those dumb teenage things I’ve said in my life, I can actually tell you a pretty good story about the background, people, insecurities, and other things that got me there. Those stories are constructive, and useful, and they’re how people like me get better. I don’t sound like seventeen year old me today because seventeen year old me was some monster (he wasn’t), or because a suffocating culture of political correctness has cowed me into silence (it hasn’t). I don’t sound like that because I’m smarter, and more thoughtful, and I’ve lived in lots of different places with different people and gotten to know a lot of them, and even gotten a chance to talk to a few of them about issues like racism, homophobia, elitism, religion, and other potentially divisive subjects in good faith.
It’s not an after school special. It’s not Starbucks diversity training you can throw together in a day. It’s working and building trust with people who are different from you for a long time, and then not shying away from topics when the opportunity to address them comes up.
Maybe that’s all completely unrealistic for Northam. He should just go away, and a new standard will hopefully emerge over time as increasingly aware blocks of people take political action. And it’s not like he’s going to do it — he’s going with the “that’s not me, but yes, I did a lot of other things you’re going to find out about soon” approach which is basically just a slow drip of people throwing up their hands and getting frustrated.
But I do think there’s a potential silver lining here we’re not going to take advantage of, and that’s a bummer.