Reflections on Ralph Northam: Concerns about Concern Trolling

Northam's disgusting yearbook photos have drawn understandable demands for him to resign.  But before we close the book on this story, there is a second story that seems to be going unnoticed.

Respectable news sources including the New York Times reported that offensive photos of the governor had been discovered.  In the course of their reporting, though, they haven't examined that they were uncovered by a White Nationalist publication specifically for the purpose of creating a controversy to drive the Alt-right's agenda.  The reason that this angers me is not that it's somehow unfair to Northam, who has no entitlement to defense over the racist attitudes his costume displayed.  It's because the inclusion or omission of this information substantially alters the context of the story as we all decide the appropriate response to Northam's past wrong.

As presented, it appears that evidence of disgusting behavior from the far past has coincidentally appeared to enact karmic justice years later.  The actual story, though, is that Northam is the latest target in an Alt-right campaign to take down their adversaries through concern trolling.  "Concern trolling" is the practice of undermining an adversary by pretending to be a concerned ally.  It's become an increasingly popular strategy within the Alt-right in response to certain positive developments in our society.  As progressives embrace a policy of accountability and moral consistency which has been here-to-fore lacking in both parties, and as overt and coded racism has finally started to become a political liability (at least among the left), white nationalists have adjusted tactics to smear their opponents by feigning an association with themselves.  Back in 1988, if you wanted to take down a Democratic governor, you smeared him by suggesting that he wasn't sufficiently racist, but since appeals to racists are losing potency, the same groups of far-right extremists are instead pretending that Northam is secretly one of them.

It should give us pause when the people crying loudest that Northam is a secret racist are non-secret racists trying to force him out of office.

This does NOT absolve Ralph Northam.  Northam's costume is totally indefensible.  He knew perfectly well it broadcasted a disgusting attitude about black people when he wore it as a fully grown adult into a social gathering.  A yearbook page is intended to be a summary of who someone is, and Northam's reveals a very unpleasant truth about him.  Northam doesn't deserve any breaks simply because a lot of time has passed or because the pictures were revealed by even worse racists.  But before we force him out of office, we have an obligation to reflect on the political manipulation that started this and ask if we're being played.

The Alt-right wants to isolate progressives from anyone who isn't already a fully informed expert on contemporary and historical race relations, or who has ever been less than fully woke in the past.  It's attempting to drive the left towards a crusade for moral purity to prevent the left from teaching most Americans about historical inequities and sub-conscious social practices that hold people back.  Teaching people requires that we accept that they walk into the classroom ignorant. 

I'm embarrassed to admit that I once wore a costume in which I darkened my face to cosplay a black character.  I went to a costume party dressed as Dean Learner/Thornton Reed, a character played by Richard Ayode.  I was crazy about the show, and didn't see makeup in any way different than donning the character's 70's mustache.

Is it promo card for "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace" or a photo of me at a costume party?  You can't even tell!

I'm embarrassed that I was so ignorant not to know the context of such a costume.  Today, I wouldn't wear the costume, and if anyone would like a personal apology I encourage them to reach out to me.  The reason I cite my own experience is to highlight that the purpose of this whole Northam episode is to discourage political advocacy by white people alongside people of color.  They'd like someone like me, a political activist who supports Black Lives Matter, to fear political involvement, and for moderates, independents, and ignorant conservatives to believe that an ideological pogrom is coming for them.

I think that the Democratic party should tell every old white Virginian that whatever they've done in the past, if they want to live up to America's values and fight to repair past wrongs, we're keeping a seat open for them.  Northam wasn't always in favor of taking down Confederate monuments.  But he changed his mind on this issue.  Northam 25 years ago certainly demonstrates that the man in those pictures didn't respect black people.  Is he the same person today?  I don't know.  But Robert Byrd was a Dixiecrat and a member of the KKK at the age that Northam took his yearbook photo, yet Byrd went on to earn the praise of the NAACP through service in the senate.

If Northam wants to keep his job, perhaps the Virginia Black Caucus would find him eager to champion their agenda now.  And if he did so, I believe he could finish his term as that governor who used to be racist but went on to be a strong defender of black Virginians' civil rights. 

Progressives have started demonstrating a level of moral consistency in their pursuit of justice that is unprecedented in my lifetime.  And this can be challenging, because we all still have that voice inside that wants to make excuses for our political allies.  But our ultimate quest for a just America calls on us to rationally assess who past behavior hurt and how to repair that damage.  I don't want my leaders to be sorry, I want them to make things better.  Al Franken hurt women he groped as a Senator, and losing his seat was the best way to restore confidence that such actions are not tolerated in a Democratic senator.  Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape a classmate.  He left her scarred, and being denied placement on the Supreme Court would've been an appropriate measure to assure Americans that a violent sexual crime even as a teenager renders one disqualified for a lifetime position passing judgement over the crimes of others.  But confirmation that an old white Virginian didn't respect black people in his 20's doesn't present a specific victim, only a sense of disgust.  It doesn't radically change our understanding of who Northam is.  So what's the fastest course to justice?  Make an example out of him.  Not an example of progressive puritanism: an example of the progressive belief that past wrongs demand reparation, and also that we are capable of celebrating people if they are willing to fix the harms they've caused and better themselves through action.