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Opinion

This, too, shall pass

SoVaNow.com / February 14, 2019
It’s been an embarrassing run of late for the proud Commonwealth of Virginia, but hopefully one day we’ll look back on this time as a turning point, when people finally came to grips with questions that others thought were settled long ago. To quote the great William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

To wit: Blackface. I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly learned lots this past week that I didn’t know prior to Ralph Northam and Mark Herring telling us all about their embarrassing forays into this all-American art form. Al Jolson, now there’s a familiar name; Ted Danson, too — I’m old enough to remember when the Cheers star dressed up in blackface for a Friars Club roast with his then-girlfriend, Whoopi Goldberg. It was all the way back in 1993; today the careers of both celebrities are chugging along fine. Writes Wil Haygood of minstelry in the New York Times: “It has been a part of American popular culture since what we recognize as popular culture emerged — roughly round 1832, when Thomas Dartmouth Rice, in blackface, performed his song ‘Jump Jim Crow’ to thunderous applause at the Bowery Theatre in New York.”

Eighteen thirty-two. How ‘bout that! Here it is, nearly 190 years later, and people are still reaching for the black shoe polish, inured to the fact their chosen form of revelry is deeply insulting to many people, especially black people, of whom the offenders might even include among their closest friends. (Whether the feeling is mutual is a different matter altogether.) I’ve never been at a party or an event where people showed up in blackface, but I’ve certainly heard of such things happening. Yet even in the seventies and eighties, blackface was widely considered a bad idea — although maybe only bad enough to make it “edgy.” Some folks just can’t resist.

Other than serving as a reminder that lunkheads have forever roamed among us, what else does Virginia’s blackface scandal of governance tell us? Lots of things, actually, so let’s try to unpack a few:

» We are a fallen species and sinners all, and no one alive has always lived up their perfect selves. So while it’s fair to a point to judge past lives by present-day standards — in the “Would Babe Ruth get past Double A ball today?” sort of way — a better standard of evaluation is needed. With Babe Ruth, the yardstick suggests itself: How did he perform in relation to his contemporaries? (Awesomely). You can take this same rule and apply it to presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson and rightly conclude they were objectively terrible men.

» The other standard to consider is looking at one’s newfound actions and asking: Do people understand how to apologize, and what they should be apologizing for? Are they able to place their past deeds in the proper context, fully aware of why people found their behavior offensive, then and now? Is the reckoning of past actions full and sincere?

Gov. Northam shot himself in the foot, irrevocably in the minds of many, with his clumsy, sorry I did it/hey I didn’t actually do it response to the revelation of a racist photo in his medical school yearbook from the mid-eighties. Plus, I’m sorry, but pairing a blackface character together with a Klan wizard is poisonous no matter which decade it is. Mark Herring, by contrast, offered a thoughtful apology for a much less egregious offense, dressing up as rapper Kurtis Blow when Herring was the tender age of 19. That transgression falls squarely into the category of an old wrong that doesn’t keep someone from being a better person than the criticism might suggest.

Not that Northam strikes anyone as an abjectly terrible guy, either; it’s more that our governor is ill-suited by this time to the task of leading a productive conversation on race relations. How does Northam even lay to rest the inevitable charge that he’s lying about his yearbook photo? He can’t, absent someone else stepping forward with an explanation for the whole business that might be too exotic to believe anyway. Northam has spent the past week vowing to lead Virginia toward racial equity. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how he can be the person to point the state in such a laudable direction.

It’s here that our attention inevitably must turn to the troubles of our lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, who has been publicly accused of sexual abuses by two women who do not seem discreditable at first blush. (One of Fairfax’s accusers says he raped her in college, a felony crime for which the statute of limitations does not apply.) In the scheme of things, what Fairfax is alleged to have done is far worse than what Northam may or may not have done, which in turn is much, much worse than anything Herring has admitted to. Fairfax’s innocence or guilt is certainly an open question, and Northam’s worst confirmed crime is jaw-dropping cluelessness, but their predicaments are serious enough to warrant both of their resignations. If it happens, Herring takes over the Executive Mansion. Of course, Northam and Fairfax are vowing to hang tough, and attempts to hound them from office are likely to push them to hang tougher.

So where’s the silver lining in this mess? What good can possibly come from it? Positive change hasn’t yet come from the opposite side of the political aisle; one small satisfaction from the past week was seeing one less smirk at the General Assembly with news reports that Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican, spent his college years at Virginia Military Institute editing a yearbook that was rife with blackface and racist images. Yet glancing blows against hypocrisy are not much to root for in the present context; what would be gratifying to see is for a better understanding of racism’s malignant impact to emerge among people of goodwill. That would be a very valuable thing indeed to take away from the present political carnage.

I have my hopes. It used to be fashionable in some quarters to proclaim that racism, if not entirely dead, is much less a force in modern-day society than it used to be. You no longer hear such claims very often amid the drum of daily insults and transgressions that flow from on high. (You-know-who was back at it this week with tweets mocking the Trail of Tears, the genocidal campaign against Native Americans. Even for the Toddler-in-Chief, this is a real low.) The need to have genuine conversations around race relations never goes away, and it’s tempting to think the dysfunction never gets any better, but I don’t think that’s true. And frankly, being able to direct our ire at politicians — this time, on a bipartisan basis — greases the way for a greater shared understanding, even if there’s some shouting along the way. It’s easy to trash politicians (it can also be necessary), and while we all have our deficiencies to answer for, at least this serves as a moment to highlight how bad behavior is hurtful to others, and if you consider yourself a good person, you shouldn’t do it.

If only some folks had paid closer attention to the point decades ago.

***

Just a few observations about the commentary on race relations at the high school that members of the black community brought to Monday night’s meeting of the Halifax County School Board. One, these problems are real and they demand a community response, and two, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the kids these days are generally pretty admirable in accepting people who don’t look, live or think exactly like them. Get any large group of people together and conflicts are bound to occur — there will always be people who rub other people the wrong way, and the world is rife with provocateurs who just want to get a rise from everyone else around them. This reality shouldn’t obscure the broader truth that the Kids Today are (mostly) alright.

I do hope students will take the grievances expressed Monday night to heart and assume a leadership role in making Halifax County (and HCHS) a better place. Us old folks have a way of sidelining young people in debates that play out in the public sphere. Which is ironic, because some of the most intemperate, counterproductive and frankly ignorant statements you’ll find kicking around the self-same sphere are made by middle age people who are thrilled to express their strident and (often) anonymous thoughts in online forums and newspaper comment sections. This enthusiasm is often coupled with personal exposure to high school life that dates back to the Nixon Administration. Whaddaya say we get more young people in on this conversation? Dollars to donuts say it would come as a significant upgrade.

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