By David K. Shipler
A significant question hovers over the furor surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s evident racism at age 25: Does a racist act justify a life sentence, or can a person evolve? Are racist attitudes malleable or thoroughly embedded in character? Is bigotry curable or merely discoverable, as through an old statement, action, or photograph?
This conundrum, which is larger than Northam, has been mostly absent from demands that he resign. But it’s central to mapping ways forward from America’s quagmire of bigotry. If individuals’ racial prejudices are impervious to change, how does society make progress? Or if prejudice can be reduced, how is that best accomplished? These are not new issues, but they take on urgency with a President Trump who reflects and enables biases against an array of ethnic, racial, and religious groups, from Mexicans to blacks to Muslims.
Unfortunately, Northam has failed to lead the discussion where it should go. He has neither acknowledged his sin nor chronicled his redemption. He has forfeited a teaching opportunity that might have helped the public see how a person can confront and revise his prejudices—if that is indeed his case. It is worth wondering whether he might have salvaged his political career with candid introspection. Maybe not, but it would have served the greater good, for the journey from racism through reform is one needed by society as a whole.
Northam’s sin was the inflammatory picture he evidently chose for his own page in his 1984 medical school yearbook. It showed two men standing side by side, one in blackface, the other in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Northam either was or was not one of the men, depending on which of his ambiguous statements you credit. In any case, he also admitted darkening his face with shoe polish on another occasion, to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance. That touched a nerve of racial history, when whites in blackface used to perform in minstrel shows that mocked African-Americans as dumb, lazy, fearful, and ridiculous.
Relatively few whites are sufficiently attuned to the overtones of history, the undertones of stereotyping, and the innuendoes that trigger, for many African-Americans, the long echoes of hatred. If nothing else beneficial has happened during the Northam episode, the mainstream media have at least given a short course on the ugly practice of blackface. It still endures occasionally in Halloween costumes and “ghetto parties” on campuses, where administrators huff and puff and punish.
How to remedy the scourge of bigotry often depends on how changeable people seem to be. Since widespread redemption appears doubtful, the society has erected a superstructure of inhibitions—both legal and cultural—designed to prevent prejudiced thoughts from being translated into behavior. Violating anti-discrimination laws carries legal penalties; violating cultural norms can mean losing a job, a promotion, a friendship, a reputation. The results are anything but consistent, as illustrated vividly by the contrasting reactions to Northam and Trump. Northam’s Democratic Party denounces him, and Trump’s Republicans look the other way.
That superstructure of deterrence has never been airtight, but fissures widened under President Obama as racist resentments over having a black president reverberated into the country through the internet. Much of the prejudice was encrypted, disguised as legitimate criticism but amplified by resonance with age-old stereotypes: blacks as “other” and Obama as a foreign-born Muslim socialist; blacks as mentally inferior and Obama using a teleprompter; blacks as incompetent and Obama as out of his depth; blacks as threatening and Obama as angry (contrary to his low-key demeanor).
Since Trump entered the White House, the country’s underbelly of American anti-black and anti-Jewish hatred has become more obvious. His ability to retain a 40 percent approval rating, despite his winks and nods to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, says a good deal about the limited potential for racial progress, on the one hand. On the other, making raw racism visible might also generate renewed efforts to fight it, as during the civil rights movement, when much of the country was galvanized by the televised, twisted faces of white girls screaming epithets at blacks being led into newly integrated schools.
Many respectable institutions, from colleges to corporations, have been trying to bolster the superstructure of decency without aiming at private thoughts. It’s a pragmatic strategy. An attempt to change people’s minds can be taken as impugning their morality, and can provoke defensive indignation and resistance. So, for example, the military works at racial harmony by focusing on unit cohesion. Its philosophy is essentially this: You can think anything you want. That’s your business. But if you behave in a discriminatory or hostile way that undermines the readiness of the unit, that’s our business, and it will not be permitted.
Similar self-interest guides many corporations, which train employees that the diverse customer base and the diverse reservoir of potential workers and managers require a tolerant and diverse workplace. It’s simply good for business. And many colleges see a legal and educational obligation to provide a safe learning environment for students of all ethnicities, races, religions, and sexual orientations. Respectful interactions across those lines are also essential to prepare young people for the multifaceted world beyond.
It seems likely that changing external behavior can eventually affect inner assumptions and images. Furthermore, shifts in society’s norms make certain forms of racist expression no longer acceptable, at least in most circles, and the taboos surely seep back into the thoughts of a good number of white Americans.
Yet engaging those thoughts directly can be delicate. Some diversity trainers use cross-racial encounters in schools and workplaces to target internal attitudes. They try to inspire rethinking, often by absolving participants from guilt over their own racial biases. Growing up, we all had slanders and slurs recorded in our minds, the argument goes, and those recordings now play back to us in adulthood. A healthy response is to hear them, recognize them, define them as pieces of prejudice, and use the power of our awareness to sequester them beyond the reach of our behavior.
Redemption is a mysterious process of individual complexity. Hugo Black, a Ku Klux Klan member from 1923 to 1925, opposed an anti-lynching bill as a Democratic senator. But he supported the New Deal and sponsored the first federal regulation of wages and hours under the Fair Labor Standards Act. He then became a Supreme Court justice on the liberal side of most civil liberties cases, especially on the First Amendment. He was part of the unanimous court in Brown v. Board of Education’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of segregated schools.
His Klan membership ended in 1925. Ralph Northam’s picture of the Klansman appeared in 1984. Those six decades marked a great flow of progress in America, yet Northam was evidently caught in some back eddy of stagnation. Judging by his liberal policies today—expanding Medicaid, removing Confederate statues—he has also traveled a great distance since. If only he would tell us openly about that journey.