Should Virginia Governor Northam Resign?

After first apologizing for his college yearbook picture in blackface (next to someone in a KKK costume), then denying that it was him in the picture, why hasn’t Governor Ralph Northam resigned? I think that it is because he knows in his heart that he is not a racist. No one can read the Washington Post account of his childhood and college years and think that he is. https://wapo.st/2MW4ndp

The unfolding story raises a number of important points or lessons, if you will (I am always an optimist).  Should adults be held accountable for views or behavior in their youth—i.e., are we able to grow in our understanding and change our views?  Should the prevailing understanding and attitudes of earlier times influence how we “judge” earlier behavior, i.e., does context matter? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson where slave owners, after all. These questions are relevant more generally (think of the confirmation hearings of Presidential nominees for the Supreme Court and other important positions).

Northam’s now famous yearbook picture immediately raised several questions in my mind.  Before making judgements about Northam’s attitudes on race I wanted to know, among many other questions, what was in his mind when that picture was taken (or if not him, put on his yearbook page).  What message did he think he was sending? My first reaction, clearly not the reaction of many others, was that he was making fun of the KKK.  I have the same question about blackface more generally and those fun musicals and minstrels with black-faced white singers and dancers. When did black face become an affront to blacks or should I say African Americans?  This question is thoughtfully explored by John McWhorter in a must read piece in the February Atlantic Monthly https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/mark-herring-and-grey-zones-blackface/582355/. According to Wikipedia: “In the United States, blackface had largely fallen out of favor by the turn of the 21st century, and is now generally considered offensive and disrespectful.”

As I grew up in California, “Negro” was the polite term for “African American.” It sharply contrasted with the derogatory term “Nigger,” the very sight of which outrages me.  But fashion evolved. As an undergraduate at the U.C. Berkeley in the 1960s we switch from Negro to Black, to keep up with evolving fashion.  One of my favorite columnists in the 1980s and 90s, William Raspberry, an African American opinion writer in the Washington Post, wrote a column I liked a lot bemoaning the ever-changing fashion in referring to Negros, Blacks, People of Color, African Americans, etc.  He said that changing the name is less important than changing the reality of the status and treatment of minorities in America.

Prejudice reflects ignorance.  It is best overcome with knowledge. Familiarity is an important source of knowledge. Large numbers of people cluster with their own ethnic or religious group and thus have little direct knowledge of “others”. Those who thought badly of “niggers” or “faggots” generally didn’t know any. They feared what they did not know. Black-faced performers began to introduce blacks to many whites. Though they were often buffoonishly stereotyped, they were non-threatening and were thus likeable. People often fear what they do not know.

In a step up from blackface Amos and Andy in the sitcom of the 1950s were played by real African Americans.  They were heavily stereotyped but lovable. No one could fear them. In the 1970s we progressed to the Jeffersons and in the 1980s to the Bill Cosby Show. With familiarity, baseless fear dissipated.  TV encounters were increasingly complimented with real live encounters.

Something similar happened with gays. TV first introduced homosexuals as silly but harmless hairdressers or fashion designers. For many of us looking back the stereotypes are borderline offensive (no offense to effeminate hairdressers). But gays gradually became more present in television and in our surroundings and less threatening. Then we were introduced to the comedy show Will and Grace who progressed gay images toward the idea of successful and diverse people living in New York. They were funny and approachable people we would be comfortable to hang out with. People began to discover that their uncle George or Aunt May were gay and were OK with that. Will and Grace performed a similar service for gay acceptance by a wider public as had Cosby for African Americans.

Context matters and people learn and evolve. My own opinion of Governor Northam has evolved from thinking that, of course, he should resign to thinking that he shouldn’t. https://wapo.st/2SBEyoy

 

 

More on the balance between the public and private sectors

Private sector rights.

I strongly support the right of the Boy Scouts of America’ to define who it will accept as members (i.e. its right to exclude gays). I don’t have to agree with how people use their freedom to believe passionately in their right to be free including who they join with in clubs. I was happy to see that organization relax its rules and open its doors to gay boys. But that door was not opened very wide and the BSA still has a way to go. I was thus very happy to see Lockheed-Martin end its donations to the Boy Scouts until remaining discriminations are ended.

Richard “Guglielmetti, 66, who led Troop 76 in Simsbury, Conn., for a dozen years until 2005, said leaders and members of his troop ignored the national organization’s prohibition on gays as scouts or leaders because they felt it was wrong.” (US Today, January 28, 2013)  It would have been counterproductive and morally wrong in my view for the government to have forced this result or to push it further.

As another example, Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson (I never heard of him) said some perfectly ignorant and offensive things about gays. We should all defend his right to say what he wants to. We should also defend the right of A&E to suspend his show, though I am not particularly happy about mixing up commerce and politics or moral issues. Fortunately, A&E is a cable show. Cable programs are not subject to the government regulations covering over-the-air shows and are free to pretty much do what they want. This helps explain why cable shows are often much more interesting.

A process of public discussion and education best sorts out touchy issues such as these. The government is not needed or wanted here.

Domestic spying

Whistle blower Edward Snowden received further confirmation of the legitimacy of his belief that the government has over reached in its domestic personal data collection (see my several earlier blogs on this subject). In ruling that NSA’s massive metadata collection for all domestic phone calls (numbers called, date/time, and duration) was unconstitutional, Federal Judge Richard J. Leon stated that the government had failed to “cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack.” (Washington Post, December 20, 2013).

Equally damning was the just released report of a panel appointed by President Obama to investigate charges of NSA abuse, which included among its members former deputy CIA director Michael J. Morrell. The review panel said the program “was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”

Snowden has performed an enormous public service at great personal risk. Thank you Mr. Snowden

Maybe our ship is starting to right itself.