Were I on staff, I’d propose to the disgraced Virginia governor a simple path to transform his nightmare into both a teaching moment and act of national redemption. This way, when Ralph Northam inevitably resigns, this declared non-racist confronts the lord of racism in the here and now – targeting our most damaging, racist schemer/hustler in the White House. That makes big lemonade out of small lemons, offering potent atonement to a governor still oblivious to how racism ripples out.
Governor, don’t be just another forgotten, banished figure, slammed by your private racial scandal. A clear “transactional” self-sacrifice could establish a permanent moral and political threshold for public office – speaking to political justice and retrieving some of your lost integrity. That happens when a malefactor accepts both responsibility and appropriate punishment.
Consider what this kind of Northam ultimatum would establish for racists out front and in the weeds.
I do not practice or support racism of any kind. What happened in 1984 is both indefensible and, more importantly, not who I am, nor what I’ve done for 20 years. I understand the pressure to abandon my elected post, and I accept it. But I seek to tie my withdrawal to a higher, more wide-ranging, national dishonor.
I will resign the day after a manifestly unfit, public racist, bigot, and abuser of women resigns. If pressure banishes someone who freely apologizes for the inexcusable, why should a shameless, unapologetic president remain in power? Should not the same thresholds apply? If one dreadful episode – invisible across my political career – ends my governorship, then how can a far more culpable bigot – whose overwhelming divisiveness constantly relies on racist appeals and coded language – remain intact?
It is appropriate, if tragic, for me to leave when I can no longer act effectively; but I will not resign over a long past episode that doesn’t represent who I am when a politician who caters to racism remains in office. Thus my pledge, I will resign the day after President Trump does the same.
Agreed, Northam’s racist yearbook entry is sufficient to force removal. But what ex-senator Al Franken or Judge Cavanaugh did – or current Congressman Steve King does – is worse. The governor’s followup comments have only turned bad to worse, especially the admission he acted out Michael Jackson in black face. We are, thankfully, past brushing aside such bad behavior, as if transient or unimportant.
But bad judgment almost 35 years ago, hidden from view (and not used as lever to win votes), must be distinguished from an active, predatory, policy-making racist who scorns minorities, Muslims, immigrants (and caged children) plus legitimate asylum seekers. That Northam approved, or ignored a racist photo, should be condemned, yet its worse case impact falls short of damage from president who traffics in racism, bigotry, and contempt for women. Two remote, offensive episodes do not match daily, vicious tirades against “criminal” immigrants aligned with rape, massive drugs smuggling, and whatever is meant by “human trafficking.”
It’s hard to find anything good in the governor’s rank racism, certainly that didn’t impede career prospects: its otherwise invisible banality is part of its ’80’s offensiveness. Black face and a KKK outfit invoke nothing less than terrifying racial hatred, terrorism and lynching. Even now, not displaying racism does not excuse Northam’s insensitivity to what defines a tolerant, understanding, welcoming politician. Sure, bemoaning Klan linkages are predictable, but that’s not the same as trying to be as race-neutral as any well-meaning white person can be.
Targeting the untenable
In short, I step back and posit the Northam episode as a small slice of a much bigger pie that did not overtly or physically abuse others. I think his esteemed bi-partisan career is over and the clock is ticking. But much greater progress towards justice demands the full condemnation and forced exit of Donald Trump. That means not only publicizing his every racist tweet and slur but making clear blatant racism by itself is immediate political disqualification. That bigotry is only one of this president’s countless moral and leadership crimes does not weaken its sting.
If Northam’s exit becomes one more potent lever against continued Trumpery, he achieves both partial atonement and participation in removing a national disgrace. To paraphrase what Freud may never have said, sometimes a governor is only a governor, but a president is top of the power food chain, with undeserved global attention. What this deranged president says and does has 50 times the impact. Uncovering an ex-racist in Virginia, the home of the Confederacy, is not exactly earthshaking news. But tolerating an overt racist in the White House, whose tenure plays on white tribalism and excusing neo-Nazis, that is morally untenable – bad for every one of us and bad for the country we’d like to reform.