Can we forgive youthful mistakes?

What is school for?

It is a bit of an open-ended question. Obviously academics are part of it. Art and athletics have a role as well. But so does the ability to function in a larger social group; to steal some Bangor Police Department wisdom, it is a place to learn that you should keep your hands to yourself, leave others’ things alone, and be kind to one another.

Most importantly, it is the original “safe space.” Not “safe” as in free from upsetting thoughts or words, but “safe” in that failure has minimal repercussions. Getting an “F” on a math test isn’t a good thing, but shouldn’t be life changing. But bouncing a check because you couldn’t balance your checkbook or watching a bridge collapse because the engineer used the wrong formula? Bad day.

Screwing up at school is to be expected. The real question is what you learn from it.  

That is why calls for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, to resign over his 1984 medical school yearbook page are likely a step beyond. Wearing blackface and posing with a costumed Klan member was terrible judgment and is not acceptable. Accusing his Republican rival of racism on the campaign trail exposes him to credible charges of hypocrisy.  

Now it comes to light that, during his college years, the Democratic attorney general of — you guessed it — Virginia also wore blackface as a Halloween costume. He pretended to be a popular rapper in 1980. No pictures have surfaced yet, but he has issued a preemptive apology.

Lt. Governor-elect Justin Fairfax, Attorney General-elect Mark Herring and Governor-elect Ralph Northam are shown in a Dec. 18, 2017 file photo. Virginia’s top three elected officials are engulfed in scandal. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Blackface is an anachronism of our nation’s racist past and the stain of slavery. It is similar to the caricatures of the Japanese during World War II, when Americans were locked up in inland internment camps solely because of their national heritage. Hopefully, students ignorant enough to think “playing” with this historical reality grow up and recognize the deeper meaning of their edgy costumes.  

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals is facing her own ghosts in the form of collegiate writing. Neomi Rao, a Yale and University of Chicago alumna and American of Indian descent, is his nominee. The problem? She wrote provocative articles for the undergraduate school newspaper.   

Her pieces certainly made some arguments which are questionable. And, like most student-authors, she used phrases — “the dangerous feminist idealism which teaches women that they are equal” — that make her cringe now. Maturity and hindsight have a way of bringing youthful mistakes into sharp relief, be it blackface or brash prose.

However, these type of mistakes should not prevent people from professional pursuits, even in the public sector. Everyone grows up.  

Rao and Northam should both be judged on the whole of their resumes. Voters in Virginia might find that Northam’s campaign hypocrisy is enough to cast him aside; that would be an understandable outcome. The Senate’s consideration of Rao should explore her experience and decide whether she is up to the job. The American Bar Association believes her “well qualified.”  

When students decide to step into national debates, they deserve to be treated as adults, with both the good and bad that comes with it. But if they are making juvenile mistakes in the confines of an educational setting, they should have the freedom to be stupid. We can hope they grow out of it.  

And if they do, maybe they can become governor of Virginia. Or the attorney general. Or an appeals court judge. If so, all that school might have been worth something.


Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.