Think back to the 2016 election:
- One candidate failed to follow proper email protocols;
- The other conspired with Russia to steal the election, built an entire campaign on racism, had a history of shady bankruptcies, mafia dealings, sketchy finances, etc. – and refused to release any of his tax returns.
So what was the media’s verdict? BOTH SIDES ARE GUILTY OF SCANDALS, SO HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY JUDGE WHICH ONE IS BETTER OR WORSE? And hence we ended up in America’s current disaster of Mad King Donald.
The way to avoid making awful mistakes over and over again is to learn from the ones you made before. Which brings us to The Great Virginia Dumpster Fire of 2019.
I fully recognize the temptation to turn away, to not want to engage or hear any more, to roll up in fetal position, sucking your thumb, waiting for this all to pass. Yep, that’s what too many of us did in 2016.
But no – when facing a crisis, we all need to take a deep breath, keep our wits about us, observe the actual facts of the situation, keep thinking and then make reasoned judgments. When good people just throw their hands up in the air and surrender, they cede the high ground to vultures with very bad intentions.
For this reason, I do NOT agree that the revelation in Virginia of Attorney General Mark Herring admitting to once applying blackface as a 19-year-old undergraduate, dressing up as a rapper at a party, makes his behavior perfectly equal to that of Governor Ralph Northam, under fire for putting a still unexplained blackface/KKK picture on his medical school yearbook page.
Indulge me for a moment here – ignore the All Scandals Are Equal standard and use your eyes, ears and brains to actually process and reach conclusions about what’s going on here. Consider the following differences between these two situations:
- The most important consideration is the behavior of these two individuals here and now, as adults:
- Northam initially posted a short statement, reiterated with a video, with no description or explanation of what was going on with that weird picture on his yearbook page, the key phrase being: “I am deeply sorry to make the decision to appear as I did in this photo.”
- But then the next day, he largely retracted that statement, claiming in his bizarre press conference that the photo must have been of somebody else – and he didn’t know how the picture, which he claimed he hadn’t seen before, ended up on his page.
- Northam also made no serious effort to explain why his yearbook says his nickname was “’Coonman” or what that was supposed to mean.
- None of this is plausible or persuasive. It sounds like the kid who got his hand caught in the cookie jar coming up with every excuse he can think of to say it wasn’t really his hand you saw there. Altogether, there are way too many unanswered questions here, with Northam doing a horrible job of addressing them, for anyone to feel confident in his leadership right now.
- Herring, by contrast, got ahead of the story from his past, releasing it before anyone else could. His explanation was detailed, discussing what happened with the context described – attending a party where he and some friends “dressed up like rappers we listened to at the time…and perform[ed] a song.”
- His contrition and understanding of why this is problematic was also detailed, and unflinching: “because of our ignorance and glib attitudes – and because we did not have an appreciation for the experience and perspectives of others;” “as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others;” “It was really a minimization of both people of color and a minimization of a horrific history I knew even then;” “the shame of that moment has haunted me for decades;” “That I have contributed to the pain that Virginians have felt this week is the greatest shame I have ever felt.”
- While Northam refuses to even entertain the idea of stepping down and thereby truly taking responsibility, Herring actually mentioned in his statement “whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general.” He also voluntarily stepped down from his position as Co-Chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association.
- Add to this Herring’s emotional meeting with black lawmakers, and it’s hard to see what he reasonably could have done to take more responsibility for this situation than he already has.
- In short, Herring demonstrated that he gets it, while Northam demonstrated – tragically but quite dramatically – that he doesn’t.
- The long-ago situations in question also reflect different contexts:
- Northam’s photo came after he completed medical school, in 1984, at age 25. A yearbook page is where you attempt to summarize who you are and what you stand for – your philosophy, interests, etc. Placing a glaringly racist picture in such a place is extremely problematic – and the presence of someone in a KKK outfit removes all question as to the point of the “joke”.
- And…I STILL WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE HELL “COONMAN” IS SUPPOSED TO MEAN.
- Herring’s transgression, by contrast, involved one poorly considered incident at some random party. It was not some sort of effort to summarize his purpose in life. If there are photos of it somewhere, he does not appear to have tried to glorify and disseminate them – quite the contrary. It was a matter of making one mistake of lousy taste and judgement, one night, at one party, at the age of 19 in 1980.
- The suggestion that Herring has to resign in order to be consistent with how he judged Northam is flawed:
- Herring did not initially ask Northam to resign, saying instead when the photo came out: “It is imperative that Governor Northam hears and truly listens to those who are hurt by this image as he considers what comes next.” Only after the calls for Northam to resign came from the Virginia Black Caucus and other major Democrats did Herring release a second statement calling on Northam to resign.
- Superficial takes claiming the situations between these two men to be precisely identical deserve to be judged based on the facts, not on glib social media memes.
You can agree or disagree with my take – but don’t waste my time or yours with responses that do not involve examining the facts and making reasoned, independent judgements. We cannot afford to undo all the hard work Democrats have undertaken over the last decade in Virginia – building up a party to champion the needs of workers and the middle class, opening up the doors of opportunity to everyone regardless of race, religion, gender, etc., preserving an environment for younger generations to enjoy – in a fit of angst during which we throw up our hands and refuse to do the hard work of distinguishing right from wrong, or better from worse.
Think, judge, decide – and fight. Your efforts are needed at moments of painful crisis like we confront today more than at any other time.