The Northam Controversy Is a Perfect Moment to Reflect on Our History

Michael Tanner

There is a strange serendipity to having the scandal over Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s past racist behavior break at the start of Black History Month. It serves as a timely reminder of both America’s racial sins and the progress that we’ve made to overcome them.

We can’t escape the fact that our nation’s treatment of African Americans represents an indelible stain on its soul. Between 1619, when a Dutch ship first brought African slaves ashore at Jamestown, and 1865, when the 13th Amendment officially outlawed slavery, as many as 9 million Africans and their descendants were held in bondage and servitude in the United States. These men and women were routinely murdered, raped, beaten, and deprived of the most basic human rights.

Nor did the oppression of African Americans end with the abolition of slavery. From lynching to the rise and fall and rise of the Klan to legally enforced segregation, slavery was followed by more than a century and a half of second-class citizenship. And even in the decades since the worst aspects of Jim Crow were finally outlawed in the 1960s, the treatment of African Americans has remained unequal.

Far too many conservatives pretend that the mere removal of legal barriers to African-American progress instantly created a level playing field. In reality, even if overt discrimination has greatly diminished today, the consequences of past discrimination are still with us. From abuses in the criminal-justice system to continued discrimination in employment, housing, and education, full equality remains as more aspiration than reality.

But that aspiration is part of the story, too. Though we may not be perfect, we want to be, which counts for something.

The very fact that revelation of Northam’s behavior sparked near-universal condemnation highlights the progress we have made. We are not the same country we were in 1950 or even 1984. What was once acceptable or even commonplace no longer is. That’s progress. There is much that remains to do, but we are trying to do it.

The story of America and race is not simply a story of our failures. It is also a story of our attempts to do better. Yes, it is a story that encompasses many sins, but it also is a story of the basic decency of the American people who have helped transform the political and legal landscape for the better — African Americans who demanded change and millions of white Americans who stood alongside them.

Indeed, one can look around the world at simmering racial, ethnic, and tribal conflicts and see few countries that have come as far as we have. For all its faults, it is the American system — democracy, the rule of law, and free-market capitalism — that has made such progress possible.

If too many on the right want to ignore the continued existence of racism, too many on the left want to ignore the progress that we have made. Those might be politically useful stances, but they do both America and Americans a fundamental injustice.

As the writer and philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Ralph Northam has done us a favor by reminding of us of the bad and the good of our past. Let us use this opportunity to reflect on both.

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