The Volokh Conspiracy

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No, Gov. Northam Shouldn't Resign Because of 1984 Blackface/KKK Photo

A 60-year-old is far removed from the 25-year-old he once was.


[UPDATE: For more, including the analogy some have drawn to the Kavanaugh allegations, see this follow-up post.]

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Jack Wilson, and others have called on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign because of his 1984 medical school yearbook photo, in which he and a classmate are shown in blackface and in KKK garb. (It's not clear who is in which costume.) That doesn't make much sense to me. It's 2019, 35 years later; what Northam thought was in good taste when he was 25 says next to nothing, I think, about his beliefs and actions today, when he is 60.

I don't think the photo actually endorses the KKK; it seems like a stupid joke more than a political statement. Nor does it seem to endorse hostility to blacks; some blackface displays do, others don't, and it's not clear that this one was understood that way. Some believe that all blackface is offensive; but even if that's so, that just tells you that Northam, when he was 25, did something offensive. How relevant is that today?

People will doubtless ask me: What if this were something offensive to the group I belong to? Very well, if I saw a medical school yearbook picture of someone in 1984 of someone wearing a Nazi uniform, alongside someone dressed as a religious Jew with fake curls and a hooked nose, I'd say: Yes, 35 years ago, this person did something in bad taste, which many people understandably find offensive. So?

Indeed, even if Northam had actually expressed hostility to blacks back then, I don't think that says much about him today. People change their views, and their actions, a lot over three and a half decades. Judge the man on what he is doing now, now on what costume he wore and what yearbook photo he chose—or even what he may have believed about race—in 1984.