Cross-posted from POLITICO Magazine.
Ralph Northam wants you to know that he’s sorry. Sorry for donning blackface thirty-some years ago for a Michael Jackson dance contest. Sorry for the fact his page in a 1984 medical school yearbook includes a photo of someone in blackface standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. Sorry about the “hurt that decision caused then and now,” and for not “living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor.”
Sorry or not, calls for his resignation began even before he released a statement on the matter, with many prominent leaders arguing that Northam has, in the words of Joe Biden, “lost all moral authority,” and can no longer serve effectively as governor.
But the moonwalked-back apologies, sorrowful mea culpas, and petitions for a Northam curtain call cloud the main issue. The language of American politics may conjugate partisan interests with moral appeals, but in politics, resignations—like apologies and impeachments—are political acts, not moral ones.
Northam’s decades-old racist behavior does not inherently suggest he lacks the moral acuity to govern now. If he is to be taken at his word—that he is not racist, ardently supports civil rights and is genuinely horrified by his past attitudes and actions—then his growth and maturation could be seen as evidence of his fitness for office.
This distinction, however, is immaterial because his moral failing in the past is a political liability today. And, especially on matters of racism, politics—and the defining of what is and is not a liability—polices the boundaries of what we’re willing to accept as a society.
If this was really the beginning of the ever-elusive national conversation on race, the focus would not have immediately gone to Northam’s elected office. Instead, it would’ve centered on why blackface is hurtful, an exploration of why white Americans continue to engage in it, an understanding of how such racist depictions have real socioeconomic consequences, and a commitment to social education and change enacted through a concrete policy agenda.
In such a scenario, Northam would’ve resigned out of respect for the 20 percent of Virginians who are black and the black voters who were essential to his election win, and who have lost confidence in him. For a state that’s engaged in a fierce debate about its Confederate legacy, this sort of moral courage would’ve gone a long way towards healing and reconciliation. Northam’s moral leadership would be more respected than the office he held.
That he decided, instead, to hold onto political power suggests that the politics of the issue, not the morality of it, rule the day.
America’s conversation about racism isn’t so much about race or morality as it is about what we’re willing to tolerate or not in our public life. If this was strictly about morality, disassociated from any political implications, then Northam’s contrition, disgust at his old self and vow to be a better man would’ve been enough for everyone to move forward. It is not and was not, and that fact is revealing.
Racial norms are shaped by the consequences of violating them. This is why Jim Crow laws and vigilante lynch mobs went hand-in-hand. And it is why blackface went from America’s most popular form of performance to a political and social death knell. As evinced in the Northam episode—and in the resignation last month of Florida’s secretary of state after photos emerged of him donning blackface as part of a racist costume as a victim of Hurricane Katrina—the offenders, no matter the party, are too much of a political vulnerability for their actions to be forgiven. The public shaming and chastisement of those individuals communicates to others what is acceptable and the associated penalties.
So, on matters of racism, just what is acceptable? Blackface? Not acceptable. Confederate flag? Yes: Southern white politicians evoke the stars and bars and pay little, if any, political price. The n-word? Not acceptable. Racist nicknames, like calling a senator with Native American ancestry “Pocahontas”? Saying there are “very fine people” among violent white nationalists who murdered a young woman? Barring real consequences, society finds these if not acceptable, then at least politically tolerable. Thanks to comments from Representative Steve King about white supremacy and white nationalism, the nations understands there are now political penalties to pay for being less than clear on their unacceptability.
The Northam debacle provides an object example of this policing at work. And with the nation’s current partisan divide and sensibilities on race, a politician whose overtly racist behavior is documented with photographic evidence presents a political opportunity that neither party can afford to ignore.
Democrats, who have long accused the Republican Party of running racist campaigns, and whose core constituency is substantially comprised of racial minorities, realize the significant reputational and symbolic harm that would occur by excusing the governor. Exacting a harsh political penalty signals to its members, potential voters and wider society where the party stands.
Republicans, for their part, wouldn’t dare pass up the opportunity to benefit from the political damage caused by the resignation of a top official from the other side, especially when racist behavior is the impetus. Calling for Northam’s resignation attempts to counter arguments that paint their party as racially intolerant, with the added benefit of disrupting Democratic governance and building political capital for future policy fights and fodder for election campaigns.
As such, bipartisan agreement that Northam should leave the executive mansion is not a public punishment for a decades-old moral failing, but a political reaction by those with vested interests in his resignation.
If Northam refuses to resign, the only way he can be removed from office is through impeachment. It stands to reason that, since a three-quarters majority of the state legislature is required to remove him, he calculates his remaining in office would be preferable to state Democratic representatives than for them to work with the Republican-led General Assembly to impeach him. This may be even more true now, following the recent allegations of sexual assault against Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring’s admission on Wednesday that he, too, once wore blackface as a young man. Impeaching Northam no longer guarantees that Fairfax or Herring would ascend to, and remain in, the governorship.
And Northam is doubtlessly aware that Republicans may actually prefer that he remain in office since he would make for an easy foil in this year’s state legislature elections.
Resigning makes the politics easy for the parties, but catastrophic for Northam: He may well regret donning blackface. He may be genuinely repentant. But if he resigns, he will forever be remembered as the first Virginia governor to abdicate the office since the Civil War because he didn’t see the harm in a little racist fun.
What happens next remains to be seen. Northam could be convinced that he is doing irreparable harm to the Commonwealth of Virginia, his family reputation, and his professional prospects after government if he doesn’t resign. Or he could play a political game of chicken, and dare his own party to impeach him, betting that public interest will wane in the weeks ahead.
But whether or not Northam resigns, let’s have no illusion: It will be the result of intense political calculation rather than the result of a soul-bending journey for moral repair and racial reconciliation.