Why Racists Deserve to Lose Their Jobs—Governor Northam Included

On Friday Feb. 1, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam responded to a high school yearbook picture in which he was wearing either KKK robes or blackface. After an initial apology, reports now claim that Northam denies involvement in the photo. Now, many constituents and activists call for his resignation.


Those who defend racist actions like Northam’s often argue that time changes people and that apologies should be accepted. Others assert that freedom of speech should protect people who harbor dangerous views. And still others feel as if losing one’s job is too harsh—that these sorts of situations should be used as learning opportunities.


But there are many reasons why we should not accept apologies of this caliber and why people like Northam deserve to face backlash.


Let me begin by saying that all white people are racist. Myself included. We live in a culture that constantly awards whiteness and violently rejects blackness. As a result, whether we know it or not, we all have internalized racist beliefs. Therefore, white people need to acknowledge this. It takes consistent learning, listening and consciousness raising to purposely unlearn such deeply ingrained beliefs. This is the difference between someone who is cognizantly working on their racism and someone who is openly racist.


As a white person, I know that I have said and done racist things that I am not proud of in the past. But that does not mean that I should not have been held accountable for my behavior. People like Northam expect their white privilege to protect them when their past catches up with them. If Northam was actually sorry about his racism (and actively attempting to unlearn it), he would have publicly acknowledged and apologized for his racism long before someone discovered his yearbook photo.  


Likewise, when someone is truly apologetic, they do not deny their actions as Northam did. It is obvious when someone is genuine. When someone is apologizing for actions as racist as Northam’s, they actually take responsibility instead of creating weak excuses after the fact.


Now, to address those who feel that freedom of speech should protect people who spout virulent racism. Freedom of speech protects you from censure by the government, not consequences for your words and actions. Racist words and behavior are inherently violent. They are a power flex intended to demean, threaten and dominate people of color (in this case specifically black people). Openly racist remarks and actions encourage and normalize violence against people of color.


Losing one’s job is exactly the kind of punishment racists deserve, especially when they are a public servant like Northam. Clearly, Northam and many others do not care about the gravity of their racist actions. Racist words and actions that encourage hatred and violence against an entire group of people deserve strong consequences. Open and honest conversations (like this one!) explaining why such behavior is never acceptable can and should follow, but consequences need to occur. Without consequences, racist white people will continue to hide behind their privilege and the status quo will be maintained. Not to mention, few come back from actions as disgustingly racist as Northam’s. Those who engage in racist behaviors know it and think that they have every right to get away with it.


So no, we should not forgive Northam’s weak apology. We know better, and we deserve better.


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