Northam Yearbook page
Credit: Fox News/Screen Capture

Since the calls for the resignation of Gov. Ralph Northam began over a yearbook picture, I decided to not write about the incident because the discussion that ensued was troubling to me. It is not because I disagreed with the almost universal opinion among Democrats that he needs to resign or the hypocrisy of Republicans who want us to forget that his opponent in the governor’s race, Ed Gillespie, ran one of the most racist campaigns we’ve seen in this country.

The issue for me has been that we are once again witnessing an example of how difficult it is for Americans to have a real conversation about racism. Noting that appearing in blackface has become “thoroughly associated with the worst of American racism,” Jamelle Bouie gets to the heart of the matter.

But this high bar for sanction — essentially a “pics or it didn’t happen”standard for racism — is also a problem. It treats expressions of racist contempt or mockery as the most egregious forms of racism, when that distinction should belong to the promotion of racist policies and ideas…{T]here should have been broad, bipartisan outrage over revelations that a voter identification law passed by North Carolina Republicans in 2013 targeted the state’s black voters with “surgical precision” in order to suppress the vote. Jeff Sessions’s tenure as attorney general — during which, among other abdications of his duty to protect Americans’ civil rights, he directed the Department of Justice to curb its investigations of abusive and racially discriminatory police departments — should have been a national scandal.

Bouie reminds me that not that long ago, it seemed as if we all needed to hear tape of Donald Trump using the “n” word in order to acknowledge his racism. Even more disturbingly, Chuck Todd assumed that we need to know what’s in the president’s heart to name his racism.

Notice how Todd’s question puts the focus on what is in a white man’s heart over actions that actually affect people of color. Sherrod Brown does an excellent job of dismissing that question from Todd and pointing to the president’s history of racism, as well as the kind of systemic racism that infects our criminal justice system and our history of housing discrimination.

Jamil Smith discussed something similar when he talked to Rev. William Barber about the Northam controversy.

The photo in question first appeared on a conservative site associated with white nationalism, and went viral after TheVirginian-Pilot picked up the story on Friday afternoon. The image is precisely what modern right-wing ideology wants us to believe racism looks like. Republicanism bolsters policy that sustains systemic racism; it only makes sense that it thrives on the overly strict notion that X person if and only if he or she says “nigger” or shows up in a Klan hood. Sometimes not even then.

“America keeps trying to have conversations and keeps attempting to deal with racism when quote-unquote cultural things erupt,” Barber says. “Or when something like Charleston happens, as gross and ugly and murderous as it is, and then we have an eruption, and then it goes away. And part of the problem is in that kind of reaction itself, because racism ultimately is about systems and structures.”…

What this Northam controversy should point us to is the episodic lens through which we view racism in this country — a series of flash-points sparked by a horrifying image, a spoken slur or a bad tweet. These events trigger imprecise conversations, like whether Tom Brokaw truly has racism in his heart after saying, “Hispanics should work harder at assimilation.” Only if we’re lucky does a conversation about blackface in a medical school yearbook expand to touch upon disproportionate rates of black maternal and infant mortality…

That first paragraph captures what initially bothered me about this whole conversation. As long as right-wing ideology limits the discussion of racism to an image, a word, or what exists in someone’s heart, Republicanism can continue to enact policies that sustain systemic racism. We are witnessing that happen right now as the Trump administration not only lies to create a mythical crisis about immigrants, but engages policies that dismantle the standard for proving discrimination and re-invigorates the school-to-prison pipeline for students of color. Those acts, much like voter suppression, don’t garner the kind of outrage we’ve witnessed in reaction to the picture in Northam’s year book.

All of this is reminiscent of what Eric Holder told students at Morgan State University when he gave the commencement address back in 2014.

But we ought not find contentment in the fact that these high-profile expressions of outright bigotry seem atypical and were met with such swift condemnation. Because if we focus solely on these incidents – on outlandish statements that capture national attention and spark outrage on Facebook and Twitter – we are likely to miss the more hidden, and more troubling, reality behind the headlines.

These outbursts of bigotry, while deplorable, are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged, or the work that still needs to be done – because the greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper. And their terrible impact endures long after the headlines have faded and obvious, ignorant expressions of hatred have been marginalized.

None of this is meant to suggest that Northam shouldn’t resign. To get an idea about how the governor of Virginia is actually having an impact beyond yearbook pictures, please read Smith’s account of how he is allowing a natural gas pipeline to be built through a historic African-American community.

Until this country gets as outraged about how racism actually impacts the lives of people of color as we do about those “high-profile expressions of outright bigotry,” we’ll be giving Republicans a pass on their policies that promote systemic racism.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.