The day my name was drawn to help out at his office, the Capitol grounds were covered in ice, dangerous territory in the faux-leather loafers all pages had to wear, and my fellow page and I barely made it to the LG’s office in one piece. Northam and I shook hands after being formally introduced, and he commented on how cold my hand was -- and he promptly offered to make us hot chocolate. He urged us to be careful as we went about our tasks.
It was such a small thing, but it stood out to me.
None of the state legislators had taken the time to notice that we might be suffering from the cold temperatures or worry about our safety. His offer of refreshments was a kind offer, a humanizing offer, and for years that moment popped into my mind when asked about my incredible time as a Senate page.
That interaction, and many others with Northam, reminded me that there were still politicians who cared about their constituents and their country. I may not have always agreed with Northam’s policies, but I was proud Virginians had chosen one of the most genuine candidates out there when they elected him governor in 2017.
As you might imagine, I was incredibly disappointed by recent revelations. The man who would choose a photo depicting blackface and a KKK costume for his yearbook page did not represent the person I interacted with for two months.
That man was not the person who had mentored one of my closest friends for years and set him on his chosen career path. That man was not the person I had encouraged my family and friends to elect. I didn’t recognize that man, and I know countless other Virginians didn’t either.
The debate around Northam’s behavior over the past two weeks and the scandals involving other Virginia leaders have led me to ask: How do we define a “career-ending” mistake? Where, exactly, do we as a society draw the line in the sand? And if we have such concrete beliefs as to what is not acceptable, why have so many crossed that line and not faced the full force of “cancel culture”? How do we decide who should get a second chance?
Will there be any Southern politicians left when all the yearbooks are examined? I believe if we look long enough and closely enough into the backgrounds of most politicians, most leaders in industry and education — most people — we will find at least one episode of inappropriate behavior, a shameful lapse in judgment.
We tout acts of racism as unforgivable mistakes, yet that restriction does not seem to apply to everyone.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has promoted his brand of thinly veiled white supremacy since 2002, yet Iowans continue to elect him. The Verge technology writer Sarah Jeong was subjected to heavy backlash after old tweets featuring her insulting white people resurfaced, but the New York Times still kept her on and even hired her as a member of their editorial staff.
It seems we as a nation do not have a definitive standard on what is allowable, and situational ethics apply.
The Times condemns hate speech depending on whether the source of the spiteful prose is from the left of the aisle or from the right. Let’s just say that any racist comment, cartoon or act is wrong and should not be tolerated -- but we understand they can come from a place of genuine ignorance and can be forgiven. Sexual offenses and violent crimes, on the other hand, should be career-enders when proven through our judicial process; they are indicators of true evil in a person’s heart.
How do we decide who to forgive? We need to consider whether something is an isolated incident or a pattern of behavior. Has the person who did wrong taken responsibility for what they have done? Does the person feel real remorse about their actions? Are they trying to make amends for the harm they have done and working hard to make sure it never happens again?
If we can answer yes to those questions, I think we need to consider giving that person another chance.
Humans are meant to evolve and mature along their life journey; when you choose to forgive, you give both yourself and the person at fault a chance to do just that.
We have become a nation quick to anger, anxious to fight and eager to condemn anyone different from us. I don’t see a way forward for our country unless we remember that absolutely none of us is perfect.
We can never begin the process of true healing if every day we tear the scab off anew with angry accusations and revelations. If we choose to focus on nothing but the mistakes we’ve all made, the headlines will never end, and work to heal our broken country will never begin.
If I had access to your messages, your Snapchat or your Instagram, what would I see? Maybe it’s time to agree that we’ve all sinned and adopt a collective policy of second chances. After all, as the old adage says, those in glass houses should not throw stones.
Solomon is a 2018 graduate of Jamestown High School and columnist for the Virginia Tech Collegiate Times, from which this piece is excerpted.