Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, made the news recently for having worn blackface in 1984. Do you think he should resign from his office because of what he did?
I want to frame that question by citing two examples of how to respond to bad, hurtful, hateful things done by people in the past. In Northam’s case, the bad behavior involved a picture in a yearbook that was hurtful to a large group known as African-Americans.
The two examples are Zero Tolerance and Truth and Reconciliation. In both cases, the question is how to respond to people who have clearly done bad things.
Zero Tolerance was first employed on a national level in the 1980s by the Ronald Reagan administration in its War on Drugs. Everyone agreed that drug usage was bad for the person who was using and hurtful to their families and the communities in which they lived.
The question was how to reduce drug usage. President Reagan’s answer was to be tough on those who used drugs and the dealers who sold them.
Sheldon Wein, a professor at Saint Mary’s University, has listed six characteristics of zero tolerance policies:
1. Maximum penalties.
2. Lack of prosecutorial discretion in sentencing.
3. Narrow interpretation of rules or laws.
4. Strict liability—no excuses or justifications.
5. Mandatory punishment.
6. Harsh punishment.
In contrast, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in 1995 in South Africa at the end of Apartheid in that country had the goal of creating a healthy society by implementing an approach known as “restorative justice.”
The Truth and Reconciliation approach begins by telling the truth. People who have done bad/hurtful things are expected to publicly acknowledge that they have done wrong. The next step, however, was not to lock up the perpetrators and throw away the key, but to restore those who were penitent as full and productive members of society.
In our area, the election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago is an example of restorative justice. Even though the guy spent over a month in jail for failing to pay taxes, Chicago voters said his record has a legislature convinced them that this one “slip” did not define his character.
So, which approach would you apply to Gov. Northam’s case?
Zero tolerance? Archie Bunker once said, “What’s wrong with revenge? It’s a perfect way to get even.”
Many people might feel a sense of vindication if Northam were forced to resign. When he wore blackface, he did a hurtful thing to a huge number of people and punishing him now would send a signal that that sort of behavior will not be tolerated. We have civil rights laws, but we have to enforce them in many ways if our society is going to become healthier and respectful of everyone.
Truth and reconciliation? Many people, myself included, think, “Thank God I’m not running for public office and have my opponent pay private investigators to dig up and expose all of the ‘sins of my youth.'”
We think, “Those who are without sin, throw the first stone.”
We say, “Sure, what Northam did was a dumb and hurtful thing to do, but that was 35 years ago, he’s confessed his sin, and since then his life has gone in a completely different direction.”
On the PBS Newshour Mark Shields said, “[The Democrats] had, in Ralph Northam, a popular governor who had secured passage of Medicaid for 400,000 Virginians, something long promised, who had run against the NRA, gave them an F rating, he took them on, on universal background charges, who, in the most segregated day in America, which is Sunday morning, when people go to church with people of their own race, belongs to a church with 60 percent African-Americans, with an African-American pastor.”
David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, in that same broadcast pointed out that there isn’t an overabundance of good people in politics. I think he was saying that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Ralph Northam sinned. Almost everyone agrees on that. The “sin” of the extreme right and left is their demand for ideological perfection in a world situated east of the Garden of Eden.
Restorative justice is not at all about tolerating bad behavior. Referring to Wein’s list cited earlier, it’s about taking individual circumstances into consideration and not buying the argument that harsh punishments reduce crime. Indiscriminate maximum sentencing results in jails packed with people who can’t afford lawyers skilled in finding legal technicalities to get their clients off easy or to show that they didn’t even commit the crime they are being accused of.
After all, it’s called the Department of CORRECTIONS.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about “attitude adjustment.” Shifting from Gov. Northam to our own lives here in Forest Park, are we going to frame the question of whom to vote for in the upcoming election, how we raise our children, how we want D91 teachers to treat our children and how we relate to our significant others, in terms of zero tolerance or truth and reconciliation?
It’s our annual opportunity to take the ethically logs out of our own eyes, so that we can see clearly how to take specks out of the eyes of our neighbors.