To the editor:
The hue and cry over a blackface photo in the 1984 yearbook of the Eastern Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, which Governor Ralph Northam attended, affords an opportunity for Virginians to weigh whether outrage or judgment should define our politics. Outrage displaces judgment. It fuels self-righteousness, stabs at pain, stokes division and blocks attention to facts.
No person seriously entertains that Northam is a racist now. Even whether he was a racist then is questionable. The photograph that Northam now questions is one of a number of problematic photographs of people in costumes in a yearbook published 35 years ago. What is clear is that our common judgment of these photos today reflects a heightened and justified sensitivity to the pain that stereotyped images of African-Americans still cause and a greater historical understanding of how they helped enable Jim Crow segregation – Jim Crow being a rural blackface stereotype in 19th-century minstrel shows.
From the reporting to date, it appears that a medical classmate of Northam deeply opposed to abortion contacted the editor of Big League Politics, a small website aligned with Virginia’s GOP, regarding the yearbook images. Posting the images has in fact produced the outrage Big League Politics hoped to generate.
The outrage seems to have blocked any questioning of how a decades-old yearbook might cast light on Northam’s views on pending abortion legislation. Northam’s views are complex and grounded. As a pediatric neurosurgeon, Northam has, through his practice, a deeper understanding than most that decisions to abort are deeply painful and personal. How images from a decades-old yearbook could ever illuminate issues surrounding abortion is a mystery and was clearly not a concern for Big League Politics.
In this context, it is worthwhile to recall that then-candidate Barack Obama had to contend with controversial statements by the pastor of his church in Chicago, The Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Prodded by that controversy, candidate Obama delivered a brilliant speech aimed at healing wounds that more recent candidates have preferred to prod.
Like Obama then, Northam now has an opportunity for civic leadership when, out of fear or blindness, too many of our political leaders are shying away.
-Tal Day, Alexandria