Virginia’s governor just reversed his earlier statement about being in a racist photo

Virginia governor Ralph Northam faces calls to resign from both parties.
Virginia governor Ralph Northam faces calls to resign from both parties.
Image: AP Photo/Steve Helber
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Virginia’s Democratic governor Ralph Northam is facing widespread calls to resign after what appeared to be a racist photo of the former Army doctor and pediatric neurologist emerged online.

A 1984 medical school yearbook page labelled with Northam’s name shows a person wearing blackface standing next to another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam initially confirmed and apologized for the photo without identifying which person was him, while also declining to step down as governor.

Northam said in a statement on Friday (Feb. 1):

“Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive. I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career.”

But after his apology on Friday, Northam began calling state Democrats on Saturday, saying he had no recollection of the photo being taken, according to the New York Times (paywall). He reportedly told them he didn’t think he was in the photo. The newspaper said Virginia Democratic leaders privately said he had already lost support and would likely have to step down. The governor’s office couldn’t be reached by phone or email for further comment.

In a press conference on Saturday afternoon, Northam said he believed he was not one of the people in the photo, adding, “I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe,” noting his own statement on Friday.

He went on:

“My belief that I did not wear that costume or attend that party stems in part from my clear memory of other mistakes I made in this same period in my life. That same year, I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume. I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that.”

Northam added that “in the place and time where I grew up, many actions that we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace.”

Before Northam’s statement on Saturday, there didn’t appear to be support for the governor on either side of the political aisle, at least on Twitter. Virginia’s Republican Party said Northam’s actions were “unforgivable.” The president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as Democrat presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, also said it was necessary for the governor to step aside. The images were first published by the conservative website Big League Politics and then confirmed by the Associated Press.

The Ku Klux Klan has long been a symbol of hatred and violence. The group’s roots go back to the 1850s, and it became a forceful backlash against post-Civil War Reconstruction, as black Americans were given more rights, including the right to vote, and won elected office in the South. Klan members dressed in white sheets to obscure their identities, and held silent marches as well as midnight horseback rides. Black voters were primary targets of the intimidation and violence, which included beatings, lynchings, and mutilations.

Blackface performances—where white people covered their faces with shoe polish or burnt cork—mimicked Southern plantation slaves and “characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice,” according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The performances became more popular as entertainment after the Civil War, according to the history museum website, and the impact of such depictions and “racial stereotyping on American society cannot be overstated.”

That impact was obviously well known in the 1980s, when the photo was taken. This isn’t the first instance of such images causing controversy. Florida’s top elections official resigned last month after photos emerged of him in blackface, dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim, at a party in 2005.

This story has been updated with additional comments from Northam.