CHICAGO — Let’s be clear. The deafening chorus of Democrats and Republicans calling for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to step down over that blackface picture has little to do with African-Americans.
It’s about politics. Specifically, it’s about Donald Trump.
If there ever was a case that pointed out both parties’ shallow interest in pushing forward an agenda addressing racial equality, it is this made-up angst over a picture that appeared 35 years ago in a medical school yearbook in Virginia.
Virginia, of all places. Everyone knows the racist history of that state. It is where much of the Civil War was fought. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, for Christ’s sake.
While he says that’s not him in blackface standing beside someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe, Northam admits that he once wore blackface years ago during a dance competition where he appeared as Michael Jackson. He insists he didn’t realize at the time that it was offensive. But now he does.
Is it really so shocking that someone who grew up on a farm in a county with such strong ties to slavery might have put black shoe polish on his face at one time or another?
I don’t know a whole lot about Northam’s life growing up. But he’s said he attended desegregated schools and graduated from a predominantly black high school. It’s also been reported that he currently attends a racially integrated church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and that his pastor is African-American.
Some would say such early exposure to African-Americans should have caused him to know better. But just because blacks and whites go to school together doesn’t mean they actually sit in the lunchroom and talk to each other.
Northam says he didn’t realize the harm he’d done by dancing in blackface until he had a conversation about it later with a person of color.
“He let me know why this was offensive,” Northam said at a news conference Saturday. “I apologized to him, and I will never do it again.”
This is what a conversation on race looks like. Someone does something racially insensitive. He discusses it with someone he has hurt and he comes away understanding why this seemingly innocent act is so painful to others.
These are the kinds of interpersonal discussions that can move our nation forward, not the angry, hate-filled rhetoric Trump has encouraged Americans to spew onto each other.
I will not pretend to speak for every African-American, but for many of us, there is simply no outrage over that blackface photograph on Northam’s yearbook page. Of course, it’s racist and offensive. But many of us who live in blackface every day aren’t shocked to learn that a white politician has racist skeletons in his closet. What many African-Americans care about is what Northam has done for them lately.
Apparently, black people in Virginia thought he would be their best ally when 87 percent of them turned out to vote him into office in 2017.
He agreed with them that Confederate monuments have no right in public spaces. Since taking office, he has worked to expand Medicaid to serve the poor. He has helped restore voting rights to felons, politically empowering more black men.
The African-Americans in Virginia have a right to feel betrayed by a friend. But the question they and black people across the country should be asking themselves is: What purpose would Northam’s resignation serve?
As our country engages in a bitter dispute over race, African-Americans have to figure out what we want the end game to be. If it is to enlighten white people about issues of race and help them to understand what it is like to walk in our shoes, then we must allow second chances.
While each case is different, we must consider whether to hold someone hostage as a racist for life because of a mistake made before they became aware. We must decide if it is in our best interest to have someone who has worked to make amends over the years standing with us against those who refuse to accept change.
Justin Fairfax, the young African-American lieutenant governor, would take Northam’s place. But on the larger, more important, issue of racial reconciliation, Northam’s resignation would achieve nothing.
Republicans, on the other hand, would get to rejoice that a racist was unveiled in the Democratic Party. They could point to Northam whenever someone brings up Rep. Steve King’s defense of white nationalists or Florida’s former secretary of state, Michael Ertel, who was forced to resign last month after a picture of him in blackface as a Hurricane Katrina survivor surfaced.
For Democrats, the reward is more calculating. By declaring zero tolerance for a racist act that occurred three decades ago, they’d get to throw African-Americans a small token of appreciation for years of loyalty. That will come in handy when they’re out on the campaign trail in Virginia fighting to keep this important swing state blue.
Trump, though, would get the greatest reward of all. A president known for stoking racial fear and ignoring the truth gets to call a Democrat a liar on Twitter.
After a game of golf with Tiger Woods on Saturday, Trump tweeted that Northam’s denial of being in the blackface photo after first apologizing for it is “unforgivable.”
What's unforgivable, Mr. President, is how people like you use racism as a political pawn.
Glanton is a Chicago Tribune columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @dahleeng.