Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, accompanied by his wife Pamela, announces he will not resign during a news conference in Richmond Feb. 2, 2019 (CNS photo / Jay Paul, Reuters)

Will the United States ever escape its racist history? Some people naively imagined that the election of Obama would do it. But since Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, liberal voices insist that every visible wound be dramatically exposed and publicly cauterized. Might this treatment inflame rather than heal? That’s a question now left to conservatives.

Actually, beyond partisan outlooks, life on the ground reflects a slow and painful effort to redress the national sin—small accomplishments along with improbable lapses.

For example: on President’s Day weekend in the middle of Black History Month, the pastor’s letter in our church bulletin noted two important birthdays, Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). Both were cited as men who loosened the shackles of slavery. Throughout February, the local classical radio station featured not only Scott Joplin’s well-known “Maple Leaf Rag” but nineteen other pieces by the black composer, including excerpts from his opera Treemonisha. The music of Florence Price, composer of symphonies, chamber music, and choral works was featured, as was the remarkable life of classical and jazz pianist and singer Hazel Scott. In the chitchat of music buffs, I discovered that George Gershwin insisted that the star roles of Porgy and Bess were to be reserved for black singers. Okay, small potatoes, and nothing like the grand gestures of the Oscars, but evidence of how Black History month has succeeded in its purpose: to celebrate black Americans, and to remind us of our racist history.

At the same time, however, old yearbook photos of people in blackface, white boys in MAGA caps, flaming headlines, and indignant newscasters highlighted the complicated terrain of our racist present. In January, there were headlines about a photo from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook said to be of Ralph Northam, the newly elected governor of Virginia. Was it he in blackface standing with someone in a Ku Klux Klan getup? In 1984! Two decades after the civil-rights movement! Oddly, not as much was made of the white-sheeted Klansman. Governor Northam belatedly denied it was he in the photo, but admitted to wearing blackface for a dance contest in which he imitated Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Suddenly Dixie politicians were preemptively confessing to having committed blackface before any more photos emerged.

Liberal voices insist that every visible wound be dramatically exposed and publicly cauterized. Might this treatment inflame rather than heal?

And then there was a reported showdown at the Lincoln Memorial between white boys from Covington, Kentucky, and Native American demonstrators. We all know that white boys are racists. Who has not heard stories of Irish and Italian adolescents in Chicago and Brooklyn beating up black kids and chasing Jewish boys? Media went with the stereotype until video clarifications exposed the role of a band of self-proclaimed black Israelites, an aggressively racist sect, in the face of whose racist (and misogynist and homophobic) taunts both the boys and the Native Americans displayed exemplary restraint. Social-media gusto for exposing racist tropes momentarily subsided without any genuine examination of conscience. At least the bishop of Covington apologized for jumping to conclusions about the boys.

In the meantime, clamor for Northam’s resignation came from fellow Democrats in Congress and the Virginia legislature along with editorial pages, the NAACP, etc. Yet Northam remains in office and says he intends to serve the rest of his four-year term, working “to ensure that black Virginians have the same opportunities as whites.” One reason he continues in office is that African Americans in Onancock, Virginia, where Northam grew up, came to his defense. In the 1970s his parents sent him to the recently integrated public school. His class was half black and half white and he was one of two whites on the basketball team. Later, as a pediatrician, he treated all the children in his hometown. What did the blackface mean? Apparently no one told Northam it was a racist slur. Now he, along with others, has learned it is, and was. His friends and former classmates in Onancock, along with African Americans looking for equal opportunities, have given him the benefit of the doubt. Good for them. But he’d better see to those promised opportunities.

Racist words, images, and violence will plague our country for years to come. Still, the Northam scandal and the Covington fracas—I am leaving aside the sorry story of Jussie Smollett—offer some lessons and a bit of perspective. The first lesson is that stories about race should get the cooling-off period provided by old-fashioned fact checking. They are ill served by the rough justice of social media. The second lesson is to recognize that past efforts at redress, such as integrating schools, are a significant step on the path to redemption. With so much yet to be done, don’t forget or underestimate what has worked. 

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. This article has been adapted from the foreword to A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop by Rembert Weakland (Eerdmans).

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Published in the March 22, 2019 issue: View Contents
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