Yearbook shaming is unjust and a moral red herring
by Carolyn Moynihan | February 15, 2019
First there was Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh back in their high school days. And now, a couple of leading Democrats in Virginia are being shamed, and their political futures put in doubt, for wearing “blackface” during college. Another is denying an accusation of sexual assault in 2004. Someone else is under a cloud for being the editor of an offending 1968 yearbook.
Digging up the past to shame a rival has doubtless always been a part of politics, but resorting to college yearbooks and recollections of high school parties seems to be a new thing. Anyone who has ever been an adolescent has reason to feel nervous if they have political ambitions, or if they have, wittingly or unwittingly, made enemies. (Even the good you have done in your youth – say, being arrested for talking to a woman entering an abortion clinic – might be used against you one day.)
Assuming for the moment that both these men are “guilty as charged,” two questions arise: How bad was the offence? And how guilty of it are they now, decades later?
Actually, there is a third question: What current, and more pernicious attitudes and ideology might this foraging in the past distract us from?
First, what happened and how serious is it?
Confronted with an image from his page in a 1984 medical school yearbook, with one figure in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam first apologised for his blackface episode.
In part of his apology he said that the costume he appeared in “is clearly racist and offensive. I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service.”
Later he denied being the blackface in that photo but admitted that he had once put shoe polish on his cheeks to dress as Michael Jackson at a dance party in 1984.
Meanwhile Virginia Attorney-General Mark Herring, who had already called for the Governor’s resignation, acknowledged that he too had worn blackface at a party as an undergraduate student. Herring said that he and friends “dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup,” and that it was a one-time occurrence. He added that “the shame of that moment has haunted me for decades.”
At a meeting with Black legislators, who have relied on him as an ally on crucial issues, Herring – and some legislators – reportedly cried.
The fact that it threatens to topple two men from high political office is probably the clearest indicator of how seriously it is taken by Americans in general. The perpetrators themselves seem to regard blackface now, if not then, as very offensive, although one can’t discount the possibility of losing their jobs as a motive for contrition. Conservatives disagree about whether the culprits should resign.
An online poll of 2026 adults conducted for the The Upshot showed that blackface remains common around the US, with 20 percent of those polled – even millennials --having seen it, and between 4 and 9 percent admitted doing it. Questioned about its consequences, 30 percent of those polled thought there were circumstances under which a politician could continue in office. It ranked as worse than cheating on a spouse, but not as bad as sexual assault, misuse of taxpayer money and a few other things.
Importantly, the two politicians themselves say their blackface episode was racist and offensive and are ashamed of it. These admissions seem to come mainly from hindsight regarding what probably was, at the time, the thoughtless repetition of a frat house custom or the broader culture of their institutions and families.
But, even assuming that the behaviour of these two men as adolescents was very bad, that is, intended to demean Black Americans, what is their moral responsibility for it today? Are they racists forever because they were a bit that way then?
Surely not. To insist that they be punished now for the racism of their youth is unjust. It ignores the fact that people change, and over three decades may change a lot – psychologically, philosophically and morally. From everything they have said, Northam and Herring have repudiated the blackface custom, called it racist and offensive and expressed shame for their part in it.
As Northam said: “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that he should not be punished for anything at all to do with the episode – like dithering over whether it was him or not in the incriminating photo and, basically, trying to save his skin. That’s not a good look for a governor.
In fact, Virginians and Americans at large should be more worried about Northam’s current values, given his support for loosening Virginia’s already liberal abortion law. Although he is a paediatric neurologist, his explanation in a radio interview of how, under a bill since voted down in the state House, a severely disabled baby born alive could be dealt with under the law sounded to some people very like infanticide.
It was anger the governor’s remarks on late-term abortions that led “some people who were classmates of Northam” to send the blackface photo to Big League Politics, an owner of the website told the New York Times.
Whatever the truth about that, it is time to stop using dragging up the distant past of people we want to challenge on political or other grounds. What we should be interested in is what they are doing now, and whether it is right or wrong, for the common good or against it. Period.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.