Late last week, a Ghost of Ignorance Past paid a visit to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, surfacing a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook. As the country now knows, the uncaptioned image appeared next to Northam’s name and showed two individuals in costume. One grinned in full blackface makeup and an Afro wig. The other wore the white hood and robes of the Ku Klux Klan. The pair posed together for the camera, beers in hand.
In some ways, the revelation was reminiscent of last fall’s accusations of attempted rape against now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Like Northam’s photo, the alleged assault occurred decades ago, during a time when it was even more common for certain men to flaunt their social dominance with impunity. Complicating matters in both cases, both scandals arose well after the accused individual first rose to public office. But the facts are hazy enough that both Kavanaugh and Northam denied they were the offenders.
Our pasts are full of mistakes, things we would have done differently if we’d been a little wiser a little earlier. And now that so many moments of our lives are recorded — and where images and “deepfake” videos can even be altered to misrepresent reality — the past has an unprecedented ability to haunt us.
These circumstances pose particular challenges for people seeking offices of public trust. Certain offenses — like sexual misconduct or casual racism— aren’t just interpersonal missteps. They indicate a willingness to exploit inequities that are based on immutable identities, causing broad swaths of the population to doubt whether the accused person takes their fundamental rights seriously. When my sex or race makes me a target, will he have my back? Or will he be a bystander, or even a perpetrator? In Northam’s case, the idea that he used to dabble in racial caricatures was immediately enough for many of his constituents to conclude he’s not fit to lead.
Kavanaugh’s supporters insisted he was innocent until proven guilty, and he showed no interest in assuaging the nation’s millions of sexual assault survivors that he understood their experiences. But Northam, to his credit, acknowledged the obvious truth that, as a public servant, he bears the burden to prove “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that his commitment to racial justice is sufficiently matched to his responsibilities as the governor of more than 8 million people, about a fifth of whom are black. In a weekend press conference, he referenced Virginia’s tragic history of racial oppression and took responsibility for allowing such an offensive and racist picture to appear next to his name in the yearbook.
Yet Northam’s apology only inspired more, louder calls for him to resign, coming from every high-ranking member of his own party. One of his associates later said the episode would be a “case study in bad political crisis management.”
What went so wrong?
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