Elephant in the Corner? What Elephant?

The news media has settled into a new narrative about Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal: After keeping a low profile for four months following the revelation of a racist photo appearing in his 1984 medical school yearbook, the governor is back in the public eye and reasserting his gubernatorial prerogatives. Without explicitly saying that he has left the scandal behind, the media is saying… he has left the scandal behind.

Republicans continue to criticize Northam, but to little effect, and senior Democrats have all but forgiven him. Writes the Washington Post this morning: “Last week, several high-profile Democrats who questioned Northam’s leadership in February praised him for … calling the special session on guns, including U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner (Va.), as well as Northam’s scandal-scarred attorney general, Mark R. Herring.

Further, the Post quotes Christopher Newport University pundit Quentin Kidd as observing that most African-Americans want Northam to stay in office. “I would imagine all those Democrats who had called for his resignation would just forget about it,” says Kidd. “They would just act like nobody sees that elephant in the corner.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I can understand Republicans’ frustration at their inability to kneecap Northam politically. But I think they have mishandled the messaging.

“It doesn’t matter if Northam is vetoing or signing legislation, he is still a racist that’s doing everything he can to stay in power,” John March, spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia, told the Post. “It’s embarrassing to all Virginians.”

It’s hard to take seriously the idea of Republicans posing as guardians of politically correct language. Rather than taking a hard-line stance worthy of the most militant social justice warriors, Republicans should be counseling forgiveness for an act of youthful indiscretion that took place 35 years ago when attitudes toward blackface had not jelled as they have today. Republicans should affirm the idea that peoples’ beliefs can evolve and that Northam should be judged on his conduct later in life and his track record as a politician.

That doesn’t mean Northam should be immune to criticism. The Republican line of attack should focus on the governor’s dissembling since the racist photo came to life. Their argument shouldn’t be, “Northam is a racist.” It should be, “Northam is either lying to the public or lying to himself.”

The governor’s first instinct was to take personal responsibility for appearing in the photo and apologize profusely, which was, actually, the appropriate response. But the Democrats’ outrage proved so profound and calls for his resignation so ubiquitous that Northam reversed course and convinced himself that the blackfaced fellow in the photo standing next to a person costumed in Klan robes was not, in fact, him. And he sought to persuade others that it was not him.

The change in position was self-serving and opportunistic, and the reasons Northam offered for proclaiming his innocence were ludicrously lame, as I have detailed here. Moreover, for reasons I laid out in the same post, it is obvious that Northam was posing in the photograph in Michael Jackson costume.

Northam’s grievous sin was not appearing in blackface — a practice that was intermittently regarded as inappropriate or offensive, but far less so than it is today — but posing insouciantly next to a fellow partier garbed in Klan robes. Even as far back as 1984, the Klan was held in near-universal revulsion. One does not have to project 2019 values back to 1985 to condemn Northam’s complacency.

I understand Republicans’ gut-felt desire to hold up Democratic politicians to the same harsh, unforgiving standards that Democrats hold Republicans, and I get their frustration that the media, which endlessly hammered George Allen for his macaca gaffe, seems all too happy to let the blackface scandal fade into oblivion. But the GOP’s rhetorical strategy is not working. Republicans should focus instead on Northam’s dissembling, his purchase of forgiveness by pushing a divisive, counterproductive SJW agenda, and Democrats’ hypocrisy for letting him off the hook.

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4 responses to “Elephant in the Corner? What Elephant?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Sounds a lot like the same church but a different pew – a subtle distinction that most won’t see – on either side.

    The big mistake is calling Northam a racist when he has a lifetime of reputation beyond his bad one or two bad judgements. (I’m curious who the “other guy” is in the photo – if you find him/her, do you then get the straight skinny?).

    The sum of an individual on racism (or other) is – was it a one off behavior out of character with the rest of their life or was it a typical and continuing behavior? That applies whether you are GOP or DEM or anything else.

    We all make mistakes – bad ones – but who are we as a person over time? In the case of blacks and whites – if you are a white – do you have black friends, do you socialize with blacks… do you do things together or are you basically in a predominately white culture?

    If you are white and live in a predominately white culture – and you go one step further and get into politics – black folks have to judge you on things like, did you come to some of their meetings, did you answer questions about how you feel about things like education, opportunity, criminal justice, Confederate statues and did black folks accept those responses as legitimate and something you as an elected (with their support) sponsor/support legislation and policies for?

    You can’t just say “I’m not a racist” then take stances and positions that black folks feel do not represent their interests. Cue Corey Stewart and others in the Virginia GOP realm.

    I did not think Northam would survive. I actually was ready for him to get flushed especially if the blacks abandoned him and it was looking that way until he took his stand but the blacks also would end up wondering if he left who from the GOP would be “better” on black folks issues aka “what the hell do you have to lose” and …for better or worse – blacks still feel that folks like Northam are preferable over what the GOP offers.

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Jim –

    We all know the obvious about the character and ethics of Northam. The real elephant in the room is, and always has been, the killing of unborn and just born human beings? This rest is chicken feed.


  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    The takeaway – blackface and KKK photos are OK when they involve Democrats who are elected officials.

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Now it’s Justin Fairfax and Joe Morrissey.

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