What can re­deem black­face?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DONNA F. ED­WARDS Twit­ter: @Don­naFEd­wards

Pub­lic of­fice is a priv­i­lege, not a right. When you’re found to have racism in your past, the ques­tion is: Should you be al­lowed to re­deem your­self while in of­fice? Or should you have to step aside and stand down un­til you carry out that work?

When the news broke that a pho­to­graph of two in­di­vid­u­als wear­ing shock­ingly racist garb ap­peared on Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 med­i­cal school year­book page, my im­me­di­ate in­stinct was to Google him. I needed to know his age. I knew Northam wasn’t a peer of for­mer sen­a­tors Strom Thur­mond or Robert C. Byrd, with their Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan his­to­ries, re­spec­tively. No, he was from my own gen­er­a­tion, born af­ter me, in 1959, five years af­ter Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion was de­cided. He was a kinder­gart­ner when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. It was essen­tially the same for Vir­ginia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark R. Her­ring (D), born in 1961, who has now ad­mit­ted that he, too, once wore black­face, as a 19-year-old stu­dent in 1980. It’s mind-bog­gling. Northam, Her­ring and I are the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the civil rights gen­er­a­tion. Though chil­dren, we had our child­hoods marked by the trau­mas of the as­sas­si­na­tions of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We wit­nessed the dig­nity and re­solve of ac­tivists, black and white, who risked all to hold Amer­ica to the prom­ise of its found­ing creed. We learned of the mur­ders of An­drew Good­man, Michael Sch­w­erner and James Chaney in Mis­sis­sippi in 1964. We re­mem­ber in vivid de­tail the burn­ing streets and neigh­bor­hoods of the sum­mer of 1968. We were in high school or en­ter­ing col­lege around the time of our na­tion’s bi­cen­ten­nial.

And by the time we were born, black­face was well un­der­stood to be a hate­ful stereo­type. Our roots, how­ever, are in what came be­fore. When I was a child, my mother re­called to us her ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up in North Carolina — the seg­re­gated schools, lunch coun­ters, bath­rooms and water foun­tains. I learned, too, how my grand­par­ents fought for their right to vote in ru­ral North Carolina.

But Jim Crow — the sys­tem of state and lo­cal laws to en­force seg­re­ga­tion that were placed on the books as a di­rect re­jec­tion of the abo­li­tion of slav­ery — ex­tended up through 1965. For our gen­er­a­tion, Jim Crow laws were still in force when we were small chil­dren. Black and white, we may not have un­der­stood fully our na­tion’s dark his­tory on race. But it was not a dis­tant mem­ory. Our par­ents lived it as adults. It was the im­me­di­ate past.

How is it, then, that at 19 (Her­ring) and 24 or 25 (Northam), some­one of my gen­er­a­tion would not have in­ter­nal­ized the painful his­to­ries of black­face and the hood and robe of the Klan? How can some­one who first apologizes for a photo turn around and say, oops, that’s not me — leav­ing all of us to be­lieve that it cer­tainly could have been? Or stand at a lectern and ad­mit not that black­face but an­other black­face? Or step for­ward to apol­o­gize to pre­empt the in­evitable rev­e­la­tion of a black­face photo? Black or white, any­one from our gen­er­a­tion, whether ages 19 and 25 or 59, surely would have known that be­hav­ior to be wrong.

Dur­ing the 1970s, I was a col­lege stu­dent at a univer­sity where the “Old South” was cel­e­brated un­til a group of stu­dents rose up to put a stop to it. At the time, I saw that as an em­blem of progress. But now I won­der how much of that be­hav­ior sim­ply slipped un­der­ground and trav­eled on un­chal­lenged, in care­fully cho­sen spa­ces, as “harm­less” play. How many other year­books, photo al­bums, busi­ness school per­for­mances and par­ties have black­face and KKK uni­forms just wait­ing to be un­earthed? I sus­pect we are go­ing to find out in the com­ing days and weeks, ei­ther through sel­f­rev­e­la­tion or in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

What do we do now? For some, these things are ob­vi­ously dis­qual­i­fy­ing. No one, af­ter all, is en­ti­tled to pub­lic of­fice or the es­teem of the com­mu­nity, and for­give­ness has to be earned. I be­lieve the an­swer can be found in the prin­ci­ple of ac­count­abil­ity to one­self and one’s com­mu­nity. As to pub­lic of­fice, for now, sit it out. Come back, if you do, pre­pared to ask vot­ers to ac­cept your past and cast their vote any­way — know­ing the au­then­tic you.

Re­gard­less, per­haps some good can come of all this pain. Per­haps this is the time for an Amer­i­can truth-and-rec­on­cil­i­a­tion mo­ment, a “you too” reck­on­ing by which we ex­pose and, at last, con­front the sys­tems, in­sti­tu­tions and re­la­tion­ships that em­bed racism and its ca­sual ac­cep­tance. Per­haps.


Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ad­dresses the me­dia on Feb. 2 in Rich­mond.

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