A review of the past week’s events leads to an exhausting question: Thirty years ago, how terrible were we?
In the past seven days, Liam Neeson admitted to once responding to a sexual assault against a loved one by roaming the streets looking for a black man to blame and attack. Neomi Rao, the nominee to replace Brett M. Kavanaugh on the federal appeals court in Washington, struggled to explain troubling remarks she’d made about gender and sexual assault in the early 1990s. The Washington Post uncovered a 1986 State Bar registration card in which Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) claimed her race as “American Indian” — the first reported occasion on which she’d done so in her own hand.
The Virginia governorship was roiled by the revelation that Gov. Ralph Northam had appeared in blackface in 1984 — a Michael Jackson costume, and potentially on another occasion, though he denies that charge. The governorship was roiled again when the third politician in line, Attorney General Mark R. Herring, announced he’d also appeared in blackface in the 1980s. darkening his skin as part of a Kurtis Blow costume at a college party. (The second man in line, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, was accused by two women this week of sexual assault, in 2000 and 2004, and is denying the allegations.)
And maybe it had haunted him. But we should note that it apparently didn’t haunt him enough to bring it up when he was first running for office five years ago or at any moment since. He became properly haunted only when he was within throwing distance of the governorship and chances were good someone else would dig up a photo.
How do we judge and sort and categorize this week's revelations? How do we look at ourselves 30 years ago, and America 30 years ago, and how we shaped it and how it shaped us?
Many of these past events have been explained away as youthful indiscretions. Dumb things that, the perpetrators have insinuated, didn’t seem so dumb at the time.
At Neomi Rao’s Tuesday confirmation hearing, senators tried to separate now from then.
Did Rao still believe, as she’d written while a student at Yale, that racial and sexual oppression was “a myth”? Did she still believe, as she’d written then, that there was a “dangerous feminist idealism which teaches women that they are equal”?
Does she believe women aren’t equal?
“I very much regret that statement,” Rao replied to Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who had posed the last question. “I’m honestly not sure why I wrote that in college.”
She told the committee that she hoped she’d “matured as a thinker, writer and person.”
And maybe she had matured.
And, maybe, “I’m honestly not sure why I wrote that in college” is the most self-reflection one can expect from a 45-year-old who now recognizes the world as a more complicated place than she’d viewed it at age 20.
But how do we weigh self-maturation against the harm to others that was caused 30 years ago? How do we deal with Ralph Northam, with Liam Neeson, Elizabeth Warren, Mark Herring — with anyone, really, who comes forward at this point to apologize for their decades-old selves?
Ralph Northam and Mark Herring might understand now that blackface is offensive and inexcusable. But actually, there were plenty, plenty of people who understood it then. Those people had to swallow their offense and watch the inexcusable be celebrated in the school yearbook.
Today, Liam Neeson acknowledges that his racist trawling was hideous. It “shocked me, and it hurt me” he said Tuesday (it hurt him?). But the lynching of black men — who were brutalized and beaten, often because of sexual assault accusations — is a historic tragedy, and their ghosts don’t benefit from Neeson’s belated realization that arming himself with a bludgeon was despicable.
As for Neomi Rao: At her Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, she described some of her past writings as “cringeworthy.” But on that same day, a quarter-century after her troubling statements on equality, senators asked her whether she still believed that same-sex relationships were “immoral,” as she’d once implied. She refused to say.
Growth and evolution are real. We can all experience amazing grace, transforming our wretched hearts. Just look, for example, at Derek Black, a onetime white nationalist leader who now speaks out against white nationalism. His transformation is astonishing. His regret seems deep. But the damage he caused was also deep, when he hosted a racist radio show and moderated Stormfront discussion boards.
Can we believe that someone is no longer who they once were, while at the same time acknowledging the damage of what they once did?
And when it comes to elected officials: Is it too much to ask for some who didn’t have to be transformed to begin with?
What I'd love is for someone to get it right. Some candidate or appointee to apologize not because a leaked photo had suddenly forced them to, but because they realized the error in their past behaviors, and they were prepared for an honest conversation illuminating America's hurtful past and the role they played in it.
I would like the apologizer to stop insisting that those actions were deep in the past. They might have occurred 30 years ago, but now they’re smack in the present. They’re new, raw pieces of information to most of the voting public.
I would like to hear, “Here is what I did. Here’s why I think I did it. Here’s what happened that caused me to think differently. I can understand why that might not be enough for some of you. I can understand if that costs me the election.”
I would like sorrow and regret to run so deeply that the pain of others’ is prioritized over positions of power.
That might result in a painful mass reckoning. But until it happens, we’ll keep being haunted by our pasts, and we’ll still be haunted in 30 years.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.