In my home state of Virginia, there are more people than ever before talking about race, debating whether Governor Northam should resign due to racist photos on his medical school yearbook page. It seems like even more people are concerned about whether Northam is racist than were ever concerned about white supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville less than two short years ago—-the kind of racist violence that actually killed people. And certainly way more people care about the Northam question than were ever concerned about the bill that was killed in the Virginia House to remove the confederate monuments in Charlottesville, or the one-man protest that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax led by stepping out while the rest of the body honored Robert E. Lee.
Much of the public debate around Northam does not dispute that the photos on this page—one of a person in blackface, and another in KKK garb—are racist and offensive. Strangely, that seems to be the point of common agreement for many from all political angles. The most frequent points of disagreement seem to be whether something racist in his past should be held against him now. Questions raised include whether Northam should be forgiven, and whether the picture reflects who he is today. Practically everyone in his Democratic party, in the state (both U.S. senators and many key representatives, as well as past governors) have urged him to resign, and even politicians of national stature—Democratic as well as Republican—have called for his resignation. And the photo keeps flapping around like it’s normal, almost as if we have become desensitized to the pain and terror that these images signify to African Americans—stay in your place or face the consequences. White people of any and all political backgrounds are being asked to give their two cents—as if they are the new arbiters and experts of what this photo means. Journalists that are flocking to get the person-on-the-street opinion appear to be not unlike the foolish person who approaches someone who has never given birth to ask them what it feels like. How is it that we whites would have any idea what a continued governorship by the man in this photo would mean to the over 1.5 million African Americans living in the state, day in and day out? Quite simply, we don’t, so we should not get to decide.
But we can learn to develop empathy. We can get closer to the understanding that we were trained not to have. Even Pamela Northam, the governor’s wife, not exactly the poster child for being a white ally or an antiracist, knew enough to advise her husband that attempting to perform a moonwalk during a press conference intended to apologize for his past behavior, would not be “appropriate” at that moment he appeared to consider it. Imagine what actual work on true empathy with people of color might look like for white people. Even after 30 years dialoging and living in community, dialog, and family with African Americans, I did not even think of developing my own opinion on Northam or stating it out loud until I had engaged in some frank discussions with some African American friends whose opinions I respect and admire—-and whose opinions would likely be diverse, not uniform. And I am still learning.
But what I have learned from listening is Northam is not the first, nor will be the last, of whites they thought they could trust, but turned out to be a disappointment. As a white teenager dating an African American young man, I heard multiple testimonies right from local families about how their son thought they had a white girlfriend they could trust, but once the breakup happened and things went sour and she wanted revenge, it was all too simple for her and her family to bring the entire wrath of the racist court system down against them, simply by “crying statutory rape.” It worked every time here in good ol’ VA. And this was decades after the 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling that made interracial marriage legal. It was only after I went on to study race in graduate school and as a scholar of race relations, that I learned about Emmett Till, and so many others where the testimony of whites, particularly white women, was all the excuse a community needed to round up people of color and do whatever violence they wished to them, without fear of repercussion, or concern for justice or getting the facts. In what Katheryn Russell-Brown has called “racial hoaxes,” dozens of whites over the years have committed a crime and tried to blame someone African American for it, and tragically the justice system locks right in on the profile—in the case of Charles Stuart, they even found an African American person to coerce into confessing to a crime he did not even commit. Whites can be shady like that. People of color are not surprised. It is not a matter of Republican or Democrat. When it comes to a white father protecting a white daughter, or a white family hoarding school district resources for their own family, there is no limit to the ends whites will go, regardless of party line, to enact their privilege in service of their own. Both Dr. King and Malcolm X were unequivocal on this point: the white moderate/white liberal was who they feared and distrusted more than the over white racists. So, yes, people like Northam with a “surprise” racist photo lurking in the background are really not all that much of a surprise to many folks of color. You always have to watch your back.
Too often, individual whites who get caught saying something racist end up giving what Michael Eric Dyson calls a “dress up, fess up” press conference that falls woefully short of actual remorse, and Northam’s was no exception to that pattern. As Dyson argues, a true apology is not a self-centered attempt at clearing one’s name—it is focused on those harmed, in a way that pledges making amends, in an ongoing meaningful way to those one has harmed. What so many whites fail to realize is that our country was founded on racism, and continues to thrive on that foundation, so it is practically inevitable that almost all of us will have either inadvertently or purposely been witness to racism without interrupting it, and/or will enact racism ourselves. It is no big revelation that we all have racism in our pasts, and likely in our present. It is what we do with that information, how we pledge to live our lives going forward, to undo what we (and those who went before us) have caused going forward, that is the true measure of our characters. This requires empathy, and an ongoing commitment that lasts well beyond when the flashing lights are over, when the news cycle has moved onto the next hot take. And most importantly, it is the kind of work that would take many others along with us in the fight for justice, as opposed to merely seeking to clear our own names.
As Bonilla-Silva so brilliantly states, by focusing on these individual stories of “bad apples” we miss the much more important bigger picture of the “rotten apple tree.” We are all bound up together on this tree and implicated within it. I believe Governor Northam resigning and everyone going on as usual will not do much to change things here in Virginia. Virginia is leading the way in problems of institutional racism in this country, as one of 12 US states where over half the prison population is black (yet less than 20 percent of the state’s population), and many of those become disenfranchised after finishing their time. We have a deep history of educational segregation, and continuing racial and economic divides between our school districts have actually worsened tremendously in the past decade.
Should Northam continue to ignore the multitude of voices urging him to resign, being coy and defiant about whether or not he even remembers being in the photo (but does remember using blackface on another occasion), he is not going to earn back the public trust. Most people who care about racism and truly understand it know that this is not about figuring out what’s “in his heart”—which is where the predictable conversation often goes when debating any racist politician, Trump or otherwise– but rather what kind of policies he is willing to support and go to bat for. Clearly, Northam was not standing at his Lieutenant Governor’s side when Lt Gov Justin Fairfax sat out the Robert E. Lee tribute, alone, hoping for a new America 400 years later. Being on the right side of racial justice when it matters, over and over again, even when your party does not agree with you, is one way to rebuild it, and it will take time, not a brief press conference. Not even time that the news cycle has time for. Time will tell if Northam is ready to get out of his own way, and lead Virginians by example, in humbling himself to understand what antiracist commitment really means.
Eileen O’Brien is a Professor of Sociology at Saint Leo U. and the author of several books on white racism issues, including Whites Confront Racism.