In early January, a photo of Gov. Ralph Northam wearing a bright smile and blackface surfaced on the internet. In a bizarre series of revelations, Northam issued an apology, only to later say that although he was not the man pictured in the photo, he’d worn blackface that same year at a dance contest — which he won. Democratic leaders have called for Northam’s resignation, but he has refused to step down, and it’s important to consider whether or not he should have to.
There is a variety of factors to consider when public figures are brought to the court of public opinion. For one, the severity of the offense should determine if an offender must step down. Though it’s odd and subjective to compare one form of indiscretion to another, Northam donning blackface is certainly less problematic than, say, committing a sexual assault. We also ought to consider that while Northam’s act was ignorant and committed in poor taste, his intent was not necessarily malicious. Blackface is historically rooted in minstrel shows, which were designed to lampoon black people for being lazy, dim-witted and uneducated. Northam wearing makeup for a Michael Jackson impression was simply in a different spirit than the historical form of blackface we consider taboo.
A more compelling factor in Northam’s case is the age of his transgression. A full 35 years have passed since the photo was taken — if there is such a thing as a statute of limitations on political incorrectness, then surely it has passed. Northam wasn’t pictured committing any similar offenses in the years since he wore blackface, so it’s entirely plausible that the claim in his apology rings true, that “this behavior is not in keeping with who I am today.”
Still, some would argue that the time elapsed since his mistake shouldn’t matter. He is a representative of his state, and one aspect of this function is to uphold a proper reputation. This argument falls in line with a general desire for our politicians to be as well-behaved and unassailable as possible. It’s not unreasonable to hold one’s representative to a higher standard of behavior, but there must also be a certain level of tolerance for mistakes, even for conduct as insupportable as Northam’s. If we condemn people for moral missteps in their distant past, we deny ourselves the human capacity to grow and mature, especially with these changing times. Northam would likely never consider repeating his offense today, and his behavior 35 years ago does not reflect his current bearings. At this point, forcing Northam’s resignation would be a belated punishment — not directed at the person who committed a trespass, but at one who has by all accounts bettered his behavior since.
However, the argument that we should show leniency for past indiscretions walks a fine line. The same reasoning I’ve applied to Northam may very well be applied to someone like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was recently brought to a Congressional hearing for sexually assaulting Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Both of these situations involve a political figure being brought under scrutiny for a past indiscretion, and both men are separated from their violations by nearly the same amount of time.
Despite these similarities, there are some key distinctions between the two men’s cases that determine how they should be treated. For one, Kavanaugh’s misconduct was not limited to a single incident, as appears to be the case with Northam. Three women have come forward with accusations against Kavanaugh, so the “one-time mistake” argument can hardly be applied equally to both men. And while it is possible that both have changed since their respective offenses, the nature of Kavanaugh’s grievance is far more serious than Northam’s. To condemn one while forgiving the other would be hypocritical.
With cases such as Northam’s, it can be tough to tell the difference between poor judgement and racial prejudice. It’s even more complex deciding whether to offer the benefit of the doubt, or to call for a termination of the offender’s career. For now, it may help for us to base our decision on actions instead of words. Since his apology, Northam has made promises to spend the rest of his term addressing racial inequality within Virginia and to examine his own racial privilege. Whether this is enough to mend his relationship with his constituents is yet to be seen, but it’s important that the governor be given a chance to prove that he has changed for the better.
Dillon Cranston is a freshman writing about politics. His column, “Holding Center,” runs every other Tuesday.