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Image in Gov. Ralph Northam controversy should not need explanation on why it’s racism

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Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, La., speaks Sept. 17 in providence, R.I., during an evening program about racism in the church and society titled "Where Do We Go From Here?" (CNS photo/Brian Fraga, Rhode Island Catholic)

By now I think almost everyone has seen the photograph from Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook — a man in blackface standing next to a hooded Klansman. The figure on the left in the picture might have stepped out of a minstrel show.

John Garvey
John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, writes the Catholic News Service column “Intellect and Virtue.” (CNS photo/ courtesy of The Catholic University of America)

In the early 1800s, Thomas Dartmouth Rice popularized such a character, a song-and-dance man called Jim Crow, played in blackface by a white man. His performance made a mockery of African slaves, and two centuries later we associate the name Jim Crow with state and local laws passed after Reconstruction to maintain racial segregation in the South.

The other 19th-century symbol of racial oppression was the Ku Klux Klan, represented by the figure on the right in Northam’s yearbook. The klan called for racial “purification” of American society and engaged in intimidation and murder in its effort to impede Reconstruction.

In the picture, Jim Crow and the Klansman both face the camera. One suspects that in real life they are on a date. They are holding beers. The Klansman is the shorter of the two; perhaps it is a woman. But there is an irony in their pairing. Is Jim Crow unaware of the Klansman’s hostility? Are we to suppose they have reconciled?

Northam graduated 35 years ago, but it’s hard to imagine how anyone even then could have thought this picture was funny. To my mind it is the quintessential form of racism. The black character is a buffoon, foolish in appearance and unaware of (or unconcerned about) the menace posed by his date. The Klansman is a cute sidekick in ironed sheets, not the kind of vicious bigot whom newly freed slaves came to fear in the Reconstruction South.

I suppose this seems obvious, but I spell it out because I want to draw a contrast with some other accusations of racism that we cast about in contemporary political debates. We differ over the wisdom and legality of affirmative action, and opponents of the practice are sometimes accused of racism. We differ over whether the Fair Housing Act requires proof of intentional discrimination. Those who say it does are said to abet racists. We disagree about voter registration and redistricting, and one side accuses the other of racism.

We see police accused of racism when they argue for a more liberal stop-and-frisk policy. And sociologists, when they suggest that absent fathers are a cause of thuggish behavior by their sons.

To imply in these cases that the other side is immoral, rather than mistaken, is bad for our politics. It raises the temperature in the debate and makes it harder to compromise our differences.

But it does something else too, and this is my point. We diminish the moral gravity of racism by throwing the term around too cavalierly. Racism was the original sin that marred the beauty of America’s creation. It is mortally wrong, to use an old-fashioned word, because it denies the humanity of God’s children.

Debasing the coinage of racism like this reminds me of an observation Elie Wiesel made about the Holocaust. “Novelists made free use of it in their work,” he said; “scholars used it to prove their theories, politicians to win votes. In so doing they cheapened the Holocaust; they drained it of its substance.”

I’m not sure what will come of Gov. Northam’s offense. It was decades ago. And the people in the line of succession after him have their own problems. But it is a useful reminder of what racism really looks like, and we are right to be repelled by it.

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Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Catholic University’s website is www.cua.edu.

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