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Ralph Northam’s Lasting Shame

There is a story that Ralph Northam could have told last week that might not have saved his job, but would have restored his dignity and left him with a legacy he could have taken into retirement with pride.

The discovery of the Virginia governor’s medical school yearbook, and with it the revelation that Northam once used to pal around in Klan robes with white classmates wearing blackface (or vice versa?) was probably going to be a deathblow to Northam’s political career no matter how he handled it. For all the good he’s done in his brief time as governor, Northam has been active in public life for many years while sitting on a truth about his past that is, one way or another, wildly at odds with his current persona, and he chose to conceal his past rather than to reconcile it with the present.

That decision made the now-infamous picture we all saw on Friday not merely jarring and offensive, but a betrayal of trust. There’s almost no youthful sin a grown politician can’t survive with compelling and sincere expressions of remorse and redemption, but only if they disclose the sin on their own and seek forgiveness. If years ago Northam had leveled with Virginians about what he grew up doing or believing, and why and how he’d evolved into a better person, he probably could have apologized for the picture, referred back to his own confession, and moved on.

What’s truly unforgivable isn’t the fact that Northam was a horrible asshole when he was a young man, but his determination to cause enduring harm now that his past has been exposed, when he could just as easily have wrung something lasting and constructive out of his professional demise.

Implicit in the humiliating way Northam has tried to explain away the picture—I don’t remember if it’s me, I liked Michael Jackson, etc.—is his apparent belief that the most important issue here is how deeply held his racist views were 35 years ago. He has proceeded as if he can save his career by convincing the public that the photograph depicts a regrettable antic moment rather than his truest younger self. But the distinction he’s trying to draw is almost entirely beside the point.

Whether Northam was an out-and-proud white supremacist or a fool who had casually internalized that black people weren’t worthy of the same basic respect as white people, he has done nothing to explain how a Virginia man in his mid-twenties might have embraced either detestable value system.

I don’t know where along that spectrum the truth lies, but in any case Northam’s behavior in medical school is an echo of a white southern cultural norm that didn’t die out after the Civil War or the civil rights movement, was still very much alive when Northam was a child, and persists today both in the south and outside of it. It’s a relic of a legal racial caste system just as Confederate monuments are relics of the Lost Cause. Both are still with us because white political and cultural leaders—people like the elder Northam—have failed to adequately stigmatize them, and keep them confined to history books and museums.

Northam could have used the surfacing of his own past as an opportunity not just to relinquish his governorship, but to do so as part of a larger call for Virginia and other southern states to make a clean break with this aspect of their heritage. The point would not be to close the door to public life on every privileged southern white person who’s done something like Northam did. It’s to say that future Northams can’t sweep the hurtful things they grew up doing under the rug and, then climb the rungs of Democratic politics, and expect to be absolved if and when they get caught. It’s to enforce new, better norms, so that fewer and fewer young white people in the south and elsewhere ever get taken in by this kind of thinking and behavior over time. And it’s to expose the hollowness and bad faith of the conservatives who are pretending to be offended by what Northam did, but who will blanch the moment they are asked to extend the logic of expelling him from office to confederate monuments, Steve King, or Donald Trump.

That opportunity is slipping away. Northam could have been remembered not as the guy in either black face or the Klan hood, but as the guy who used his own shame as an opportunity to build a stronger, more just society. Instead he chose to muddy the moral stakes of the choices before him—and that, rather than the behavior depicted in the photograph itself, is his unforgivable sin.

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