Contrition and honesty are the best choice when confronting a painful, racist past

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the past few weeks, the Commonwealth of Virginia has been ravaged by another racial controversy. On Feb. 1, 2019, a yearbook from Governor Ralph Northam was released to the mainstream media. This yearbook photo originated from a right-wing news outlet, which revealed the governor, then a medical student, wearing what appeared to be blackface. Only a few days later, another Virginian public official, Attorney General Mark Herring, declared that he too had dressed in blackface in his college days. Further adding insult to injury is the fact that this series of events occurred during Black History Month.

Regardless of what time period they wore it in, blackface will always be offensive and rooted in bigotry. Because of the way by which the attorney general and the governor handled similar scandals in divergent ways, it is imperative that Northam should resign from political office, while Herring should remain in political office. Calling on Northam to resign while keeping Herring is meant to set the example of how we should reward a politician for showing genuine remorse for past failings, and punish those who seem unrepentant.

Comparing the two situations may seem similar at first, until, of course, we note the specific circumstances that make Northam’s case too difficult, politically and morally, to swallow. The first thing to note about this scandal is that at first, within a few short hours of the scandal breaking the news, Northam identified himself as the one who wore blackface in that yearbook photo, and ended up apologizing. While many had reserved comments demanding his resignation at first, he then decided to hold a bizarre press conference the next morning, with his wife by his side. There, he backtracked and stated that he was not in the photo, and in an apparent contradiction, claimed that he wear blackface in a 1984 cosplay of Michael Jackson. When asked to show his impression, Northam was prepared to do the Moonwalk, before being told not to by his wife. That performance was a direct contradiction to his own apology, and not only did this come across to the American people as a blatant display of racism, but more importantly showed his inability to apologize for his actions. Perhaps most importantly, this scenario showed his inability to have empathy with the communities that got him there: predominately black voters.

On the other hand, the situation with Herring is much simpler than Northam’s case. Herring admitted that he had in fact used blackface once before at a college party in 1980, and expressed deep regret and remorse for doing so. The willingness to be proactive and to come forward about such a thing is starkly different than that of what the governor did. To elaborate on this further, being a public servant means that when a majority of the public loses trust in your leadership, this calls into question your right to hold that power.

In comparing both cases to an audience, it is very clear which of the two needs to go. In no way is pushing for removal of the governor whilst retaining the attorney general an endorsement of racism; by doing so, however, we reward one who has shown a clear acceptance of responsibility and attempted to regain trust, while the other shows no real ability to do so and is checkered with credibility issues. Most important in this matter is that the state is clearly split on the issue, with a nearly equal amount of people opposed as well as not opposed to keeping the governor in place.

By resigning, Northam would be would showcasing a real willingness to allow the Commonwealth to heal, and to be able to put this controversy behind them. In addition, it would allow someone more mature, and more willing to admit to mistakes, like Herring, to be in office as the next governor. What is most important in a public official is to not just allow oneself to be open to being transparent of past failings, but making a concerted effort to regain that trust that would be damaged by scandal. Only one of these two individuals clearly has shown that leadership, and no amount of books, TV interviews or goodwill will quell the justifiable anger people feel towards Northam.

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