An Uncomfortable Truth

There’s a part of me that can’t help but think that we’ve all gone and gotten too sensitive. It’s not a conscious thought. It’s more primal than that. It’s something deep down in my base code.

I see the forces of political correctness. I see the expansion of the terms we consider insensitive, the helicopter parenting, the inability to question group think and the things we consider bullying. And I can’t help but feel it. That belief, deep in my bones, that we, as people, are more resilient than popular culture will allow us to be.

This pull towards resiliency is a foundational value of mine. And though I try not to let that heuristic dominate my objectivity, the risk is there. There’s no denying it.

So when the Governor of Virginia is called to resign because 35 years ago he dressed in a racist costume for a medical school halloween party and proof of that is documented in the school yearbook, there is some small part of me that wonders if, again, we’ve become too sensitive.

And then that small  part of me wanders into the same room with the rest of me. The 42 year old white man that grew up in a deeply segregated area at about the time that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was posing for that picture.

There’s a part of the American experience most people my age don’t like to talk about honestly. Because there are people still around that we care about that we’re worried will get hurt if the truth came out. Parents. Grandparents. Football coaches. People who would be horrified, with some consequence, if the truth came out about how they talked behind closed doors not that long ago. Or how they behaved wide out in the open before there were 200 million digital cameras wandering around the streets.

I didn’t grow up in the deep south. I grew up in New Jersey, in the suburbs of a small urban town. Everyone where I grew up was white. Nearly everyone that lived a mile and a half away, inside the city limits, was black.

I heard the “N-word” nearly every day of my life. I heard it from my friends. Some of them will read this. I heard it from their parents. I heard it from my grandfather. I heard it from my stepfather. I heard it from my football coaches, at practice. I had a relative hosting Thanks Giving dinner once say that if his daughter brought home a black man for dinner, he would throw out the plates afterwards.

White people sent their kids to a private regional high school instead of the public school where most of the black students went, even though the public school was better funded, had higher paid teachers, taught a broader array of subjects and put more of it’s honor students into the Ivy league.

I went to that private school too. It was nearly all white. Nearly. And I heard racial slurs every day that I went there.

And of course, there is someone in blackface in my high school yearbook.

That was a reasonably long time ago. And you may have noticed that I didn’t say that all or even most of the people behaved that way. But plenty did.

I don’t hear those things any more. Part of that is where I live and the circles in which I travel. But part of that is because we’ve made significant but incomplete progress, as a people, towards intolerance of that behavior.

But here’s where this gets uncomfortable. If it hasn’t already.

All of those people who said those things are still around. They’re not old folks sitting on the porch in their golden years. They’re my age.  Their parents are about the average age of a U.S. Senator. Still out there, sharing social media posts highlighting immigrant crime and lambasting crooked Hillary.  Still out there in positions of power and influence. And the idea that they’ve all recovered and no longer believed the things that they once believed flies in the face of all we know about human behavior.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color and walk through life wondering which one of us white folks it was who behaved that way before the curtain of progress fell.

Their boss? Their father-in-law? The judge? The juror? The cop that pulled them over?

Or maybe it was their governor.

Whether or not it’s fair to hold people accountable for things that they did decades ago in a culture that wrongfully allowed some to believe that what they did was simply good natured fun or not, is a fair question.

My answer is yes. Because, ironically, I’m the type of conservative, resilient guy that believes in personal accountability for the choices we make in this life.

But it’s important we keep asking it. Because this rot won’t die on it’s own.

Categories: Politics

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1 reply »

  1. Sean, I often read your blog. You have a thoughtful mind, which I deeply appreciate. I am older than you. I remember 1985 well. It was as you described. The prejudice was real and prevalent, and this was in the “good” people of the time. Some of us who were young at that time recognized this prejudice, but we usually said nothing. I was one of them.

    In 2019, to brush aside decades old photos as youthful indiscretion and nothing more, keeps the “rot”, as you describe it, alive. I would not want to lose my professional standing because of something I did or said 30+ years ago, something I would NOT do now, and something about which my views have likely evolved.

    But. To the voiceless millions from that long ago day, it doesn’t feel like an evolution when the powerful pay no price at all. Because the voiceless millions have paid a price many times over.
    In 1985, those of us who would become allies maybe could have spoken, but most of us didn’t. The price for US was perceived as too high. Imagine what the price was for the voiceless. In 2019, they are no longer voiceless. They are constitutents, full stakeholders in democracy. It is not “politically correct” that they expect to be heard. It is merely “correct”.

    The issue is, really…what IS the accounting to be? The public humiliation via media, I think, is the modern day equivalent of stocks at midday from long ago. What those of us throwing tomatoes at the guy’s head should ALSO consider is how many of us would also deserve a time in the stocks. For what we did and said. Or didn’t say. It’s too easy to cast out a Ralph Northam or a Brett Kavanaugh. If the evolution of thought is to be complete, there must be revolution of the actions that kept that thought in place. And we are all on the front line of that fight.