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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

658 The eyes can’t see what the brain doesn’t know

Day 658 Monday, January 3, 2022

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said something in a meeting just before Christmas that still rings in my ears: “The eyes can’t see what the brain doesn’t know.”

Reflection: Why I forgive Ralph Northam By Jonathan Capehart

Virginia Govewrnor Ralph Northam said something in a meeting just before Christmas that still rings in my ears: “The eyes can’t see what the brain doesn’t know.”

According to the pediatric neurologist turned politician, that was a lesson he used to teach medical students and residents to help them better diagnose patients. But Northam said he applied that lesson to himself in 2019 after he became embroiled in what he called “the yearbook incident.” Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page revealed stunning racism. One of the photos featured two figures — one dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe, the other in blackface.

Northam initially admitted that he was one of the offensive characters in the photo. But then he backtracked on that allegation the next day during a bizarre news conference where he did admit to wearing blackface as part of his Michael Jackson costume for a talent show in 1984. A four-month investigation into the yearbook photo by the medical school couldn’t determine if Northam was one of the individuals in the photo.

Between the yearbook incident and the Michael Jackson cluelessness, the calls for Northam to step down were swift and unsparing. I was among them, especially given the racial atmosphere in our country then. We had witnessed white supremacists swarm Charlottesville, and we were saddled with a president who reveled in pouring salt on our nation’s racial wounds. And I was more than skeptical of Northam’s promise to focus the rest of his term on racial equity.

Caught in a racial uproar, people make all sorts of promises to make amends. Whatever they do tends to be heavy on symbolism and light on lasting change. The cycle is so predictable that even the most generous of souls grows weary of this performative reconciliation, which becomes more about making a problem go away than ensuring that the problem is solved.

Thus, I had written off Northam’s nascent redemption exercise. That was a mistake.

If “the eyes can’t see what the brain doesn’t know,” then Northam didn’t know much of anything about race or the role of race in our nation’s history. He didn’t know the humiliation of blackface. He was ignorant of the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. He was seemingly oblivious to the 1889 lynching of Magruder Fletcher and the 1907 race riot that took place just outside his hometown on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. But he knows and sees clearly our history now.

Early on in his journey out of racial ignorance, Northam read Ta-Nehisi Coates and Alex Haley. Since then, Northam told us that Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary “13th” on how that amendment to the Constitution led to mass incarceration of African Americans had a profound impact. So did Ty Seidule’s masterful book, “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning With the Myth of the Lost Cause.”

But talking to Black people was the key.

“The most powerful experiences were listening to people of color talk about some of their experiences,” Northam said. “We traveled around Virginia and listened to a lot of folks; we learned more. As I said, the more we know, the more we can do. And we turned a lot of what we heard into action.”

Northam certainly did. The death penalty was abolished. The threshold for felony larceny prosecution was raised from $500 to $1,000. Suspension of driver’s licenses over unpaid court fines and fees was abolished. Recreational marijuana use for people 21 and older was legalized. All of these reforms disproportionately (and positively) affect the lives of Black Virginians.

(First Southern State to abolish the death penalty)

When Northam talked about “the yearbook incident,” he did so with the refreshing humility of someone who has learned from a searing experience. Rather than mouth words of contrition and fade away — easy to do since sitting Virginia governors can’t run for reelection — Northam worked on himself and his state.

I know I’m more forgiving than most African Americans when it comes to second chances for White people who not only commit a racial offense, but who then try to make amends. The gap in knowledge, understanding and empathy is wide. Attempting to meet a White person halfway can be dispiriting and exhausting, as many are seemingly incapable of making the journey.

(Virginia Governor Ralph Northam pardons 7 Black men executed in rape case)

But I feel compelled to meet the offender halfway when I can see that their journey is as sincere as it is humble. On this score, Northam is worthy of my forgiveness.

Northam, who leaves office on Jan. 15, learned from his mistakes. He used that knowledge to make amends, mindful that not everyone can or will forgive or forget. And because of it, Northam is a better person and Virginia is a better state.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj. Subscribe to Capehart, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast

Grace Note:

Great Uncle Tom holds Olive Irene (The Village Queen) Bachelder.

Olive Irene is the granddaughter of Tom's brother Ray who lives in Long Beach. Blessings on you Tom and your whole family. Your love is so apparent as you gaze into each other's eyes. Hope springs eternal!

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