Over Christmas, I digitised slides from my twenties. In many an unidentified photograph, I didn’t recognise the scene. Where was I? Who are these total strangers? What were we finding so funny?
Thus it’s credible that on being confronted with his personal page from a 1984 medical school yearbook, Democratic Virginian governor Ralph Northam wavered: presumably that’s him in the photograph; no, on second thoughts, it couldn’t be. The photo quality is poor, and the two jaunty figures holding cans of beer are disguised — one in blackface, the other in Ku Klux Klan robes.
I’m more familiar with Virginia than many of the Americans nationwide clamouring for Northam to resign. My father’s from Norfolk, where throughout the 1980s my family was still visiting my elderly grandfather. Sure, the state then suffered residual racism (like every other state), as it still must. But my grandfather didn’t live in an antebellum mansion where the slaves were flayed for secreting a bar of soap.
So at first glance, given the date — not 1864, but 1984 — that yearbook pic’s goofy caricature of bigotry appears tongue-in-cheek. It looks like a joke — if also a joke that, in a climate of supercharged racial sensitivity, today’s Virginian med students would be far less likely to make. The context of the joke has been lost. Given my patchy memory of my own twenties, Northam plausibly has no idea what that picture is doing on his yearbook page or what story lies behind it. This is sheer speculation, but the target of the jest could have been not black Virginians but white Virginians and their notorious throwback racism. But to entertain that conjecture, you’d have to give Northam the benefit of the doubt.
We can’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt, not any more.