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Credit: Chase Sutton

Here we go again. Last week, when a racist photograph from the personal yearbook page of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam came to light, our country once again started a national conversation about the scandalous and reprehensible behavior of a major government official. In recent days, Northam has been called upon by prominent Democrats and Republicans alike to resign from his position (as he should), but, predictably, people in his camp and others across the country have already rushed to his defense, raising questions about whether or not his career should end. He was a young man, the story goes. He did a dumb thing. We should judge him on his conduct now — his past is irrelevant.

While the situation is different, that line — "he was a young man" — rings all too familiar. It was only a few months ago that we heard the same line being touted about Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court justice prominently and credibly accused of sexually assaulting Dr. Christine Blasey Ford while they were both teenagers. The stories aren’t the same, but the defense is; when the powerful man in question did the horrible thing that he did, he was a young person. 

In this era of “cancel culture,” where one mistake can supposedly ruin your public image for the rest of your life, this phenomenon seems like a remarkable exception to the rule. But it’s no coincidence. Privileged institutions like Penn that support select young people set them up in ways that facilitate bad behavior and protect perpetrators from consequences, even years down the line. To break that cycle, we have to start calling it out when it happens. 

Young people across the world do stupid stuff all of the time — that’s universal. The thing is, if you are a young person in an environment like Georgetown Prep (where Kavanaugh went to high school), Yale, or Penn, you are far less likely to face consequences for your bad behavior. Across America, black kids, Hispanic kids, and kids from poor neighborhoods and low-income backgrounds are overrepresented in juvenile detention centers and have their criminal records marred for life, often for non-violent drug offenses. Meanwhile, at Penn, students use and sell narcotics without fear of consequences — knowing they’ll still get to go on to be doctors and lawyers. That disparity is important and useful, but even if you’re of the opinion that no one should be prosecuted for drug related crimes, there are a litany of other ills young people like us get away with. Sexual assault runs rampant on this campus, but incidents of it frequently get laughed off or dismissed. Racist behavior, classist comments — on a day to day basis, so much gets passed over, because we allow it to. To stop the cycle of powerful people getting away with bad things when they were young, we, as young people, need to hold our peers accountable when these behaviors happen.  

I know that I, too, am a young person, and that I also inhabit this insular environment. I will admit that I, like all of us, do stupid stuff all of the time. Sometimes, it’s as innocent as staying up until 3 a.m. watching cat videos and staggering to class the next day like a zombie. Sometimes, it’s worse. I know that I’ve messed up, and been problematic, and hurt people in the process. I know I’m not perfect — none of us are — and I’m not saying that every single mistake we make should be cataloged, immortalized, and held against us for the rest of eternity. But that course of action is the opposite extreme from what we seemingly have right now — a system where being young and smart (or rich) absolves you of any criticism for your actions as a young adult as long as you’re alive. We need to land somewhere in the middle. 

The second best time to hold people like Northam accountable is right now, while we have the chance. But, in an ideal world, it would have been better to do it while he was a student; when he should have faced consequences, and when he still had the best chance to learn and grow. And, while we can’t go back in time, we can look around — right now — and we can hold each other accountable in the moment, regardless of age. 

ANA WEST is a College sophomore from Spring Lake, Michigan studying English. Her email address is anawest@sas.upenn.edu. 

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