We had a blood drive at work a few weeks ago, but I didn’t participate.

It wasn’t because I didn’t want to. It was because I can’t.

A long time ago, when I was a very young man, I used intravenous drugs, and that means the experts believe that I pose a danger to the blood supply.

I wish it were different. I have been tested for AIDS and hepatitis over the decades, and I’m told that I haven’t been infected. I don’t think I would really put anyone’s health at risk.

But I understand. And considering all of the terrible things that could happen as a result of such risky behavior, I’m grateful that sitting out the blood drive is the worst consequence I’ve faced.

It is a good reminder, though. At least as far as the Red Cross is concerned, the books aren’t closed on my past. There’s still a risk, and no matter how unlikely, it could come back and haunt me some day.


That’s the frame I have to put around the bizarre revelation that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam smeared shoe polish on his face in the 1980s and moonwalked like Michael Jackson. He came forward with this admission after being confronted with a picture on his medical school yearbook page of someone (he says it’s not him) in blackface posing with someone in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.

If that weren’t weird enough, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who had been calling for Northam to resign, revealed that he, too, in his student days had put on makeup to impersonate an African-American rapper.

The Virginia Democratic Party is in chaos, especially since the only other official who was elected statewide, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, is facing his own scandal around two allegations of sexual assault.

Political analysts suggest all three may survive until the next election – not because the charges aren’t serious, but because they all appeared at the same time and overwhelmed the system’s ability to correct mistakes.

The sexual assault allegations may be actionable, especially the one that is reported to have happened during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, putting it within the state’s 15-year statute of limitations.

But there is no remedy for what the other two men did beside a public accounting. It’s time they both showed remorse by stepping down.


Doing something stupid, like dancing around in blackface when you were young and ill-informed, doesn’t make you a bad person for the rest of your life. It doesn’t mean that you can’t grow and change. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do something good for the world.

But it should mean that you can’t be a governor or attorney general, just like I can’t give blood. You can’t be trusted to be fair. You just can’t.

There’s too much debate over whether Northam or Herring is really “a racist,” but that’s where a lot of these arguments go off track. There are self-avowed racists – KKK members and neo-Nazis and others who advocate violence and terror – but there aren’t enough of them to oppress millions.

The real problem is much bigger and more complex. All of us were brought up in a racist world – not of our own making, but built on deep inequality that started with slavery and never ended. You don’t have to have hatred in your heart to perpetuate this system. You just need to pretend that you didn’t notice it.

Northam and Herring did not come up with the idea of belittling African Americans. They didn’t do it in private. They were at parties where they probably got the reaction they were looking for. Northam didn’t get booed off the stage – he says he won the dance contest.

Somebody took the picture on Northam’s yearbook page. Somebody sent the layout to the publisher. Other people bought the book. Northam says he’s never heard a critical word about it until this month.


This is not a question of one or two “racists” mixed in with people of good faith. Stories like this expose a whole culture where people tell each other what’s acceptable by what they say and do and what they don’t say and do.

There must be people in Virginia who haven’t put shoe polish on their faces with the goal of getting a laugh at the expense of others who didn’t have the power to object. Let one of those people be governor for a while.

In the meantime, the rest of us could ask if there’s anything we learned about the world when we were young and foolish that’s worth a closer look now.


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