A Virginia Lynching
Another week, another angry mob.
What distinguishes this one, however, is its quarry: progressive Democrat Ralph Northam, governor of Virginia. With demands for his resignation mounting, he’s not likely to escape the noose.
Does Northam deserve to hang? The court of public opinion is uniformly convinced he does. As one PBS commentator explained, wearing blackface—as Northam admitted to doing in medical school, even if he was not the guy standing next to the Klansman in his yearbook photo— is one of those “red lines” in the sand: cross it, and you’re racist. My black friends agree.
I suspect the young Northam was racist in the way so many men of his geography, generation, and socioeconomic class were racist: passively. Racism wasn’t something he and his peers experienced or examined; indeed, so remote was it to their lives that dressing up as Klansmen or blacking their faces with shoe polish seemed amusing and wry. Showing prejudice, even acting on prejudice, incurred no penalty in their social circle. And like most of us, Northam sought acceptance by embracing, rather than questioning, the social norms of his community.
The crucial question then becomes, did Northam outgrow his ignorance? Acknowledge his complicity? Actively address racial inequality? I don’t know the man, but those who do—including Justin Fairfax, the African-American poised to assume his governorship—seem to have esteemed him. As recently as last week, so did his constituents, black as well as white. In fact, Northam’s policy initiatives and public track record all suggest that he had moved increasingly left during his long career of public service.
Yet by the light-speed with which Democrats have deserted him, it’s clear no one cares who Northam has become. Once a racist, always a racist, the Party has decided.
I find this zero-tolerance stance by the Party of Tolerance deeply disturbing. It violates the values we Democrats hold dear: openness to difference, compassion for the marginalized, and insistence on due process, lest our all-too-human bias deny anyone of justice. Renouncing those values in order to root out racism is as counterproductive as fighting for peace.
Think of the South African women who, despite losing their husbands, sons, or daughters to horrific racist violence, managed to confront—and publicly forgive—the perpetrators during the Truth and Reconciliation hearings initiated by Mandela’s government in 1996. That they could do so is a powerful reminder that our survival, as a nation, absolutely depends on resisting our reflex to punish and rising to our capacity for empathy. People can learn from their mistakes—provided we encourage them with our compassion and reward them with our support.
If we really hope to unify this country, that’s a good place to start.