It feels unfair to be forced to entertain the question of forgiveness when someone has transgressed as badly as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. For too long, calls for forgiveness have been used to elide real accountability. Apology letters — some better than others — anticipate social absolution while victims still smart from harms. Understandably, a counterculture has emerged that all but shuts out the possibility of forgiveness in favor of “canceling” transgressors. But forgiveness and personal accountability needn’t be at odds. What’s missing in this conversation is a fulsome discussion of repentance.
Northam, of course, is infamous for including a picture of two men, one in blackface and one dressed as a Ku Klux Klansman, on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. The governor first apologized for the photograph before denying he was in it, but has admitted that he “darkened” his face to dress as pop icon Michael Jackson on another occasion.
Either way, Northam has much to atone for.
To don blackface is to choose to degrade a population of Americans whose free labor and exploitation enabled the fortunes of men like Northam — men who continue to enjoy enormous power. It’s a choice, in short, to punch down. Even worse, dehumanizing black Americans serves the purpose of justifying continued inequities. That was the case in 1884 and in 1984, and it remains the case today.
Who, a person flipping through the yearbook might ask, is Ralph Shearer Northam? A man who enjoys cars, cowboy hats, and Klansmen.
Northam didn’t “just” participate in a one-off racist joke, either. Weeks, months, or years later, he chose to incorporate a picture of the episode on his yearbook page — a space students typically use as a time capsule of their experience in school. Of all that he experienced during those four years, this incident made the curated pastiche of Northam’s life. Who, a person flipping through the yearbook might ask, is Ralph Shearer Northam? A man who enjoys cars, cowboy hats, and Klansmen.
The governor now says he didn’t understand the full social implications of blackface. But he certainly understood enough to be in on the “joke.” Transgressive humor doesn’t work without understanding the transgression, and it’s not credible to think Northam didn’t know that blackface and the KKK were potent symbols of racism. There’s a reason the man in KKK robes is posing with a mocking simulacrum of blackness. It’s a tableau vivant of racial violence.
But as Northam’s defenders have pointed out, rarely can a person’s character be understood in such black-and-white terms. The governor’s record includes plenty to recommend it. For eight years, Northam served in the U.S. Army as a medical officer. He became a pediatric neurologist before entering politics. He opposed a bill that would require women seeking abortions to get vaginal ultrasounds; opposed right-to-work laws; advocated for the state to adopt a $15 minimum wage; and voted against a bill that would have banned sanctuary cities in Virginia. On Tuesday, he restored voting rights to 10,000 former felons.
A blue governor in a historically conservative state, Northam represents a symbolic victory for Democrats — a model for how to gain a foothold on an electoral map that skews red, even as demographic trends predict the opposite. Moreover, the timing of the photo’s release — days after Northam defended late-term abortions — casts a political tint over the controversy. Would supporting his resignation ultimately be a capitulation to Republicans, whose political agenda threatens black American interests much more than a 35-year-old photograph?
Unsurprisingly, the public is divided on this issue.
One camp believes Northam is disqualified from holding office. In an op-ed titled “Ralph Northam must resign,” the Washington Post’s editorial board argue that “Northam can no longer effectively serve the people of Virginia.” It pointed to his “shifting and credulity-shredding explanations for the racist photograph” and the fact that after promising to do the “‘hard work’ of atonement,” he slipped into silence for days. “Facts do matter,” they write, “and the ones surrounding the Northam fiasco remain unsettled and unanswered. How could he possibly have admitted to something as damning as appearing in the photo if he wasn’t one of the people in it? How did that photo wind up on his page if he didn’t furnish it to the yearbook editors?” How, they ask, does Northam’s response to the controversy reflect on his judgment? “Virginians deserve better,” they write. “Mr. Northam’s time is up.”
Others disagree, citing the age of the picture, the fact that there’s an outstanding question of whether Northam is actually in it, and the absence of any evidence that Northam committed other racist acts between 1984 and the present.
“Ask yourself this,” writes Virginia conservative Daniel Payne in the Washington Enquirer. “Do we want to be a culture that can forgive very old, offensive behavior when a transgressor recants and seeks forgiveness? Or do we want to be the kind of culture that ruthlessly seeks out past transgressions and savagely drives all transgressors from polite society, whether or not they are sorry?”
There’s truth, I think, in both takes.
When Payne asks whether we want a society in which forgiveness is possible rather than one where mistakes are irredeemable, my answer is yes. It seems clear to me that progressive politics require that response.
But as my former colleague Zaid Jilani recently pointed out, there can be “a curious dissonance” between the compassion the left extends to some, like the formerly incarcerated, versus others, like those who’ve committed more minor social transgressions. When it comes to crime, factors like poverty and a lack of educational opportunity are understood to constrain individual choice. There’s a distaste for punitive measures both because they’re inhumane and because they’re known to have little deterrent effect: When we consider that various social factors predict crime, it makes sense to broaden our focus to root causes — not just punishing individuals. The result isn’t to diminish the role of individual responsibility; in properly contextualizing the role of individual will, it increases our faith in rehabilitation.
The problem isn’t just Northam. It is the culture from which he sprang.
The broad left understands that rehabilitation is not only a social good — a benefit to both individuals and their communities — but is ethically compelled. We understand that human lives have intrinsic value that must be protected and that a humanistic approach to crime can be more effective than punitive alternatives.
But even though liberals acknowledge external factors that influence bigoted behavior (we live in a racist culture, just as we live in a rape culture and a heteronormative culture, etc.), blame and retribution are often focused on individual bad actors while broader social forces are dismissed as less significant. Northam’s yearbook page is abhorrent, yes, but not anomalous. As disconcerting as the image is, more unnerving is the reality that perhaps a dozen decision-makers who produced the yearbook didn’t think twice about including it, because it wasn’t disconcerting to them. The problem isn’t just Northam. It is the culture from which he sprang.
Acknowledging this doesn’t absolve Northam. But it does shift one’s consideration of whether his bias is static and irredeemable or fluid and forgivable — informed by the world around him and subject to change. And that, of course, informs what you think should happen next.
To be clear: None of this means that Northam deserves to keep his job.
Where I depart from Payne and Jilani is that their analysis insufficiently considers the role of atonement. Preserving space for Northam to be forgiven does not mean that Northam is entitled to stay governor of Virginia. To justify remaining in office, he must earn forgiveness. Repentance precedes absolution.
Penance is an effort to fix the damage caused by a transgression. It’s an act, not merely a feeling. The restorative justice approach to criminal justice is helpful here in teasing out the path forward. It emphasizes accountability and making amends over punishment. It asks victims what they need to repair the harm done to them, not merely what vengeance should be exacted on the transgressor.
In his recent piece on Northam and the question of mercy, Jilani compared the governor to Lewis Conway Jr., who, after two decades in jail for murder, ran for the Austin City Council. Jilani questioned why some on the left championed Conway’s rehabilitation while remaining skeptical of Northam’s ability to evolve from a much less heinous offense. But the difference is in how they’ve atoned for their crimes.
The governor has spent more effort creating factual ambiguity around his yearbook photo than engaging in the hard work of penitence.
Whereas Conway served 20 years in prison, Northam couldn’t sit in judgment for 24 hours before revising his apology into a disclaimer: It wasn’t me. The governor has spent more effort creating factual ambiguity around his yearbook photo than engaging in the hard work of penitence. In his Sunday CBS interview with Gayle King, he claimed that “this is really the first time I have ever really seen that picture,” citing as proof how unprepared his reaction was. When asked why he apologized for being in a picture he now claims he isn’t in, he blamed the “state of shock” he was in following the revelation. This is the opposite of accountability.
Northam’s dodge is even more frustrating given that it only marginally improves his moral position. Yes, traditional blackface — with its coal-black paint, crimson lips, and affected minstrelsy — is technically worse than efforts to achieve a facsimile of a black person as part of a costume. Why? Because while the intent to degrade can exist in either instance, it’s always present in the former. But this isn’t a criminal trial, and the lack of intent doesn’t save Northam from critique. The effect of blackface is always degrading, because of the historical legacy of blackface in this country. To wear blackface is to trade in either ignorance or indifference. The latter is more forgivable. But it is not above rebuke.
Moreover, Northam has shown little to no substantive understanding of what he’s done wrong. At an initial press conference, he seemed to take the controversy so lightly that he contemplated doing the “moonwalk” when asked if he had the moves. (He owes his wife an above-average Valentine’s Day gift for steering him away from that disaster.)
Although the purpose of the CBS interview was ostensibly for Northam to demonstrate his new understanding of racial issues, he compounded public frustration by calling slaves “indentured servants from Africa,” appearing to sanitize the subject. And while Northam (sort of) acknowledged his racial privilege, he failed to connect that privilege to his behavior — missing the point that his ignorance about race is not just an excuse for his actions, but a symptom of a larger problem that might continue to undermine his effectiveness as governor.
Northam characterized the racist yearbook photograph as reflecting “unconscious attitudes” and said that white people did not realize how “impactful” and “offensive” certain “racial insensitivities” were to black people. “I have learned, I admit to my mistakes,” Northam told King, “and I am going to improve my life and do better and be in a position where I can help other people.”
But he hasn’t fully admitted his mistakes or demonstrated that he understands why, precisely, he’s in the wrong. He’s said nothing concrete about how he is going to improve his life and “do better” or help others, and he certainly hasn’t said anything about how he specifically plans to help the constituency his actions have harmed: black Americans.
Northam told King that “the man you’re looking at and talking to right now is not who I was in my early 20s.” But he’s offered no evidence of this, pointing only to the absence of a smoking gun from the last 34 years that would “prove” the yearbook incident was a one-off. But that’s not how racism works.
Racial ignorance often manifests in the indifference to policies that are racist in outcome, if not in design. Connecting the dots between his subconscious biases and his policymaking really would make this a “teaching moment.” Instead, what we have is a lesson in how cheaply absolution is bought.
Northam says he’s not stepping down. Instead, he’s embarking on a “reconciliation tour” to engage with his constituents about race and healing. Given what we’ve heard from him so far, I’m not optimistic, but it could be the start of a restorative process that turns this yearbook controversy into a genuine opportunity for Virginians. What will make the difference is whether the public pressures him to take active responsibility for his actions — to find solutions in collaboration with the injured parties and community members and make amends — or whether it focuses exclusively on his resignation. At this point, Northam has made clear that he’s “not going anywhere.” But that only means justice can’t be served if the public maintains a narrow, purely punitive framework for what justice entails.
As Rev. William Barber eloquently put it in an op-ed on Northam last week:
Scapegoating politicians who are caught in the act of interpersonal racism will not address the fundamental issue of systemic racism. We have to talk about policy. But we also have to talk about trust and power. If white people in political leadership are truly repentant, they will listen to black and other marginalized people in our society. They will confess that they have sinned and demonstrate their willingness to listen and learn by following and supporting the leadership of others. To confess past mistakes while continuing to insist that you are still best suited to lead because of your experience is itself a subtle form of white supremacy.