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