Blackface and Redemption

Conor Friedersdorf writes a thoughtful reaction to the controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam:

I am loath to judge people today for behavior of 35 years ago, especially when there is evidence that their bygone transgressions are at odds with their current outlook. I favor an ethos that prioritizes rehabilitation and redemption above punishment. I believe that . . . making every bygone instance of blackface a career-ender is every bit as untenable as Coleman Hughes persuasively shows, that apparently earnest apologies from people who can credibly show they’ve changed should be accepted, that grace toward people who previously held noxious views helps to hasten the demise of bigotry, and that “offense archaeology” is often an objectionable enterprise that leads us to waste time and energy on matters that help no one.

What Ralph Northam’s Defenders Get Right—And Wrong

Nevertheless, Friedersdorf concludes that Northam should resign because the controversy has damaged his ability to govern. I am not so sure. For one, I’m not convinced the controversy has in fact damaged his ability to govern. Polls don’t say that. Just talking heads.

Dave Chappelle has a wonderful line in one of his recent comedy specials, speaking about the #MeToo movement: “You have to have men on your side. And I’m telling you right now, you’re gonna have a lot of imperfect allies.” Imperfect allies. The phrase is wonderful because it captures the maddening, remarkable complexity of human behavior, change, and redemption.

I am more inclined to judge people on who they are now. Changing your mind in the face of contrary evidence is to be encouraged and even lauded. Governor Northam has an opportunity to redeem himself. All signs point to him genuinely feeling remorse, genuinely seeking racial justice. We have to have the ability to forgive and embrace. We’re going to need a lot of imperfect allies.