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Ralph Northam and his ilk are not going to resign. That’s a huge problem for accountability on college campuses.

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Ralph Northam and his ilk are not going to resign. That’s a huge problem for accountability on college campuses.

Two college students

Two college students "shotgunning" beers.

Two college students "shotgunning" beers.

Two college students "shotgunning" beers.

Max Schulman, Opinion Editor

Content warning: racism and sexual assault

You probably remember the media circus in Virginia about a month ago. On Feb. 1, right-wing outlet Big League Politics released a disturbing photo from Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook – on Northam’s page was a picture of two men, one in blackface and one in Ku Klux Klan robes.

Northam handled the incident with the pettiness of an unremorseful child: after first acknowledging that he was one of the two people in the photo and apologizing for it, he retracted his own statement the next day. In a bizarre news conference, Northam qualified his retraction in admitting that he had worn blackface while competing in a dance competition in his early 20s. Despite calls to resign from prominent Democratic presidential candidates, the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, Northam stubbornly remains. It appears that he will ride out the rest of his term – the short half-life media cycle has ensured that this episode will fade from the public zeitgeist. If you Google Ralph Northam right now, the top three news stories are about local policy, not the Governor’s shameful past.

Northam is not alone in his stubbornness. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface at a college party, but has shown no signs of giving up his plans to run for the governorship in 2021. Tennessee’s own governor, Bill Lee, admitted to wearing a Confederate uniform for a fraternity party while at Auburn University. His only act of penance was a mealy-mouthed apology, in which he acknowledged that his act was merely “insensitive.”

Young men who use their privilege to skirt accountability are at the center of big problems

The implications of these politicians’ maintenance of power concerning the scourge of racism are great, but that topic must be explored by people who have actually suffered from this nation’s Original Sin. However, as a young white man in his early 20s, I am in a perfect position to talk about something else: the signal these politicians’ failure to resign sends to people like me. And that signal is a green light, a blinking white crosswalk figure that pats us on the back and whispers, Go ahead, Do what you want right now, son. No matter what, everything is going to be just fine.

Young men who use their privilege to skirt accountability are at the center of big problems, especially on college campuses. From the epidemic of sexual violence on campuses to racist frat parties to excessive drug use, college men are responsible for these maladies. Everything from locker room talk to sexual violence to blackface can have a home on campus if we don’t feel like we’ll face any consequences. Why restrain yourself if there’s no punishment? The cops aren’t going to bust you for your coke and your bong. The Title IX investigation probably won’t turn up anything.

We need to internalize the idea that what we do now is not meaningless.

These are not just hypotheticals – I have witnessed dumb white guys who take advantage of their privilege. A few weeks ago, my friend at another school told me about her friend who is a known sexual predator and goes around campus bragging that he “Beat the rape case.” And just last week, I went to Tulane for Mardi Gras. After a frat party, when some of the brothers were cleaning up, I witnessed one of them run into a room and scream the n-word (everyone was white). One of his buddies laughed and immediately responded with the same racial epithet. I should have said something, told them how vicious their words were – just as those in Northam’s circle should urge him to resign, or at the very least force a straight apology out of him. Just as my friend should have called out the sexual predator. But I didn’t. And they didn’t. Whatever held us back, whether it be the context of the social space or fear of retribution, the result is the same.

We need to stop receiving the signal that tells us that we’re going to escape scrutiny no matter what. We need to internalize the idea that what we do now is not meaningless. We need to see a politician held accountable for the crimes of his youth. We need to let young people know that what we do now will be subject to scrutiny in the court of public opinion, and that this court is swift in meting out consequences. If we don’t see resignations, or at the very least honest apologies, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.

When Ralph Northam and all the others return to their offices, they’re reinforcing this culture of impunity. I hope they understand the message they’re sending.

Max Schulman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Science. He can be reached at maxwell.r.schulman@vanderbilt.edu.

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About the Writer
Max Schulman, Opinion Editor

Max Schulman (‘21) is a political science major in the College of Arts and Science. In his spare time, Max enjoys prominently wearing Obama-themed apparel,...

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