Ironically, it was exactly 3 years ago when a 35-year-old yearbook photo surfaced of (then) Governor Ralph Northam in blackface. To make matters worse, there was another student in the photo wearing a KKK costume. The outcry was torrential. Everyone in the Democratic party, including (now) President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris, were calling for Northam’s resignation. Even politicians I thought were Northam’s friends – VA Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and former Democratic Party Chair and VA Governor Terry McAuliffe – signed a letter to this effect.
I’m Jewish. My Polish grandfather lost his entire family during the Holocaust. But amongst the din, I thought to myself, “If Northam had been wearing a Hitler costume and giving the Nazi salute, I still wouldn’t be calling for his resignation.” Not only had the photo been taken 35 years ago but, since then, Northam had served his country for 8 years as a medical officer and became a pediatric neurologist, no doubt transforming the lives of thousands of children and their grateful parents. Plus, Northam had just introduced sweeping gun control legislation. I thought back to the March for Our Lives rally with the Stoneman-Douglas students. Civic leaders pointed out most victims of gun violence are Black Americans. Another irony: the same year the Northam picture was taken, 1984, was the year Jesse Jackson ran for president and found himself in hot water for referring to New York City as “hymietown,” a Jewish slur.
Fast forward 3 years, the offensive photo is out of the stream of social consciousness, Governor Northam just completed his term in office with a respectable list of accomplishments, and Senator Kaine is, “Glad [Northam] didn’t listen to me.” Then last Monday (February 1st, 2022) Whoopi Goldberg made a remark on the show she co-hosts, “The View,” that the Holocaust “was not about race” but about “man’s inhumanity to man.” Once again, a wave of outrage followed. A day later, ABC announced it was placing Whoopi on a two-week leave of absence.
Truthfully, I struggle with how to answer the ethnicity question on applications: do I check off “White” or do I check off “Other” and write in Jewish? But that’s beside the point. This is what I call “same scene, different script.” Whether the offense comes from a picture, remark, or publication and regardless of who’s offended, the underlying problem is the same: intolerance of human error.
Anger is a very empowering emotion. It can energize us to do things we normally wouldn’t. Forcing someone to resign or take a leave of absence may feel vindicating. Arguing, finger-pointing, and shaming, may make you feel heard. But it’s short-sighted and counterproductive if it puts people on the defensive and sows division.
News Flash: Ralph Northam is flawed. Whoopi Goldberg is flawed. I’m flawed. You’re flawed. We are all flawed. It goes with the territory of being human. To what standard do we hold each other accountable? Is there no allowance for human frailty, no consideration of redemption?
Don’t progressives preach people have good reasons for making bad decisions – like the relationship between institutional racism and crime, drug abuse, and poverty? Empathy – wanting to understand where the other person is coming from even though you don’t agree – is not a weakness. It’s a tool. I can validate my feelings and still understand someone else’s perspective. The two are not mutually exclusive. I forgive Whoopi because it’s a waste of energy and opportunity not to. By shutting people up, no one’s learning. And you’re sending the wrong message: that being human is abnormal when, in reality, our cultural expectations are unrealistic.
If we want to stop social division, we must encourage open and public dialogue. Public figures have a responsibility to role model constructive communication. I have an expression, “You can win the battle but lose the war.” You might win today’s argument. I might win tomorrow’s. But in the end, we’re tearing apart the social fabric of this country.
Each American has a decision to make. Do you want to be proactive or reactive? Do you want to change what’s in your control or keep trying to control what you cannot change? Do you want to solve problems or continue this self-destructive trajectory? I thought the last 5 years would have answered that question, but apparently not.