Running with the Hare and Hunting with the Hounds

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Running with the Hare and Hunting with the Hounds

A shorter version was published in The Daily Record February 22, 2019

As pretty much everyone knows by now, one photograph on Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page is awful: a white young man in blackface next to another person in full Klan robes and hood. Although Northam has given fuzzy explanations for how that photo may have gotten there or whether he was either of the figures it depicts, it is hard to doubt that he had something to do with the photo being on that page, especially in light of his undergraduate campus nickname “Coonman.” Predictably it has led to calls for him to step down.

Should he?

Lili Loofbouro of Slate has done a deep and perceptive dive into the image itself and what it signifies. “A yearbook page was a pre-Facebook way to present yourself as you wished to be seen…. Yearbooks are as aspirational as they are commemorative,” she points out. The image was situated with three other images on a page, each presenting a different face of Northam: “There’s a straight-on suit-and-tie portrait: serious, sincere. There’s the cowboy hat photo, leg up, shirt partly unbuttoned. There’s [a photo with a Corvette] with an easygoing Northam leaning against it in the shade. The elements this particular yearbook subject wished to convey are pretty legible: He wished to be considered a serious man, but also a country boy, but also a fun car guy, but also … and here we falter, because it’s hard to guess at what exactly the racist picture meant to this well-rounded self-fashioner.”

Loofbouro concludes, though, with a canny guess about the intent. “The other photos on that page confirm him as serious, dreamy, outdoorsy. I suspect the final photo was there to round out the portrait of the physician as a young rascal. The response was supposed to be OMG I can’t believe he did that! This guy’s flouting the PC powers that be and having fun doing it. He’s taking a risk!” There wasn’t much risk, though, Loofbouro notes, because the powers that be generally do their bit to support “the suburban white boys whose future everyone protects.” In this reading, Northam becomes just another Justice Kavanaugh, practitioner of “toxic homosociality” with privileged peers.

The thing is, though, this doesn’t square with what else we have been told of the man. Two sentences from Northam’s campaign website[1] are particularly telling. “Ralph grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and attended local public schools. When his school desegregated, many families sent their children elsewhere—but not the Northams. Ralph’s called his parents’ decision to continue to send him to integrated schools ‘one of the best decisions of my life.’” Nor does it square with what we know of his career, that he served in the U.S. Army for eight years, rising from second lieutenant to major, had a distinguished career in military medicine, was chief neurological resident at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, taught medicine and ethics, and volunteered for 18 years at a hospice for terminally ill children.

This story differs dramatically from the career of self-aggrandizement Kavanaugh pursued, a career notable principally for its devotion to the interests of the wealthy and reactionary, exactly what the accusations concerning his past might have suggested.

At a minimum, the honor, idealism, empathy, and racially integrationist ethos suggested by Northam’s history tell us that he runs with the hares at least as much as he hunts with the hounds. The notorious photo signaled to a coterie of racist classmates that he was one of them – but his life suggests that there was much more to Northam than that.

Something similar could of course be said of Bill Clinton or Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, men whose public support for women’s causes did not turn out to preclude private sexually abusive behavior.[2] But the sexual predations of each of these individuals are accused of appears to have lasted well into their maturer years, while at present, the 1984 photo (Northam would have been about 25) and a contemporaneous blackface Michael Jackson enactment seem the most recent racist behavior by the Governor. Moreover, while Northam’s blackface performances were separately characterized as “painful” (and justly so) by three different African American commentators I saw,[3] these comments betrayed nothing like the degree of hurt we have good reason to believe Clinton’s, Weinstein’s, and Cosby’s behavior inflicted.

Were all our behavior and thoughts held up to a similar scrutiny, most of us would probably turn out to have spent some time with hares and some time with hounds in one hunt or another, at one time or another. Few of us are so internally consistent that our former behavior matched our ideals at the time, and even fewer whose former behavior perfectly matches our present ideals. What matters more is how injurious the inconsistency is, and also how current, because most of us grow wiser and kinder as experience and exposure to the world shape our views.

There is probably much more information coming about the Northam affair. But in light of what is known at this point, it seems premature to call for his head.

________________

[1]. Quoted in https://ballotpedia.org/Ralph_Northam#cite_note-2 , accessed February 7, 2019. The original website is now defunct.

[2]. Several of Bill Clinton’s actions in support of women and their causes are listed here. Harvey Weinstein’s long and public support of feminist causes is chronicled here. Bill Cosby’s well-known philanthropies included a $20 million donation to Spellman College, a historically black women’s college.

[3]. Senator Kamala Harris used the term; both host Gail King and guest Dwandalyn Reese used the term on CBS This Morning on February 7, 2019; also Harmeet Kaur, a commentator of color, of CNN did so.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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