Public office is a privilege, not a right. When you’re found to have racism in your past, the question is: Should you be allowed to redeem yourself while in office? Or should you have to step aside and stand down until you carry out that work?
When the news broke that a photograph of two individuals wearing shockingly racist garb appeared on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page, my immediate instinct was to Google him. I needed to know his age. I knew Northam wasn’t a peer of former senators Strom Thurmond or Robert C. Byrd, with their Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan histories, respectively. No, he was from my own generation, born after me, in 1959, five years after Brown v. Board of Education was decided. He was a kindergartner when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. It was essentially the same for Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), born in 1961, who has now admitted that he, too, once wore blackface, as a 19-year-old student in 1980.
Northam, Herring and I are the beneficiaries of the civil rights generation. Though children, we had our childhoods marked by the traumas of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We witnessed the dignity and resolve of activists, black and white, who risked all to hold America to the promise of its founding creed. We learned of the murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Mississippi in 1964. We remember in vivid detail the burning streets and neighborhoods of the summer of 1968. We were in high school or entering college around the time of our nation’s bicentennial.
And by the time we were born, blackface was well understood to be a hateful stereotype. Our roots, however, are in what came before. When I was a child, my mother recalled to us her experience growing up in North Carolina — the segregated schools, lunch counters, bathrooms and water fountains. I learned, too, how my grandparents fought for their right to vote in rural North Carolina.
But Jim Crow — the system of state and local laws to enforce segregation that were placed on the books as a direct rejection of the abolition of slavery — extended up through 1965. For our generation, Jim Crow laws were still in force when we were small children. Black and white, we may not have understood fully our nation’s dark history on race. But it was not a distant memory. Our parents lived it as adults. It was the immediate past.
How is it, then, that at 19 (Herring) and 24 or 25 (Northam), someone of my generation would not have internalized the painful histories of blackface and the hood and robe of the Klan? How can someone who first apologizes for a photo turn around and say, oops, that’s not me — leaving all of us to believe that it certainly could have been? Or stand at a lectern and admit not that blackface but another blackface? Or step forward to apologize to preempt the inevitable revelation of a blackface photo? Black or white, anyone from our generation, whether ages 19 and 25 or 59, surely would have known that behavior to be wrong.
During the 1970s, I was a college student at a university where the “Old South” was celebrated until a group of students rose up to put a stop to it. At the time, I saw that as an emblem of progress. But now I wonder how much of that behavior simply slipped underground and traveled on unchallenged, in carefully chosen spaces, as “harmless” play. How many other yearbooks, photo albums, business school performances and parties have blackface and KKK uniforms just waiting to be unearthed? I suspect we are going to find out in the coming days and weeks, either through self-revelation or investigation.
What do we do now? For some, these things are obviously disqualifying. No one, after all, is entitled to public office or the esteem of the community, and forgiveness has to be earned. I believe the answer can be found in the principle of accountability to oneself and one’s community. As to public office, for now, sit it out. Come back, if you do, prepared to ask voters to accept your past and cast their vote anyway — knowing the authentic you.
Regardless, perhaps some good can come of all this pain. Perhaps this is the time for an American truth-and-reconciliation moment, a “you too” reckoning by which we expose and, at last, confront the systems, institutions and relationships that embed racism and its casual acceptance. Perhaps.
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