Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has been caught in a firestorm after a photo surfaced of his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan outfit. A number of Democrats have called on Northam to resign, but thus far, he says he’s sticking around.
Northam, a Democrat who was elected as Virginia’s governor in 2017, has offered a befuddling response since the photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook became public on Friday. He initially confirmed he was one of the two people in the picture and apologized, only to then walk that back on Saturday, saying he was still sorry but denying he was one of the men in the picture. He did, however, say he had at another point in time worn blackface — to dress up as Michael Jackson. During a press conference on Saturday, he seemed open to a reporter’s suggestion that he try to moonwalk before his wife stopped him.
The pressure is mounting for Northam to resign and let Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax take over. Dozens of Democrats — including 2020 presidential contenders, Virginia lawmakers, and the Democratic National Committee — and outside groups have called on Northam to step down.
Thus far, he appears determined to hold on to his post, even though very few people are standing by him. Kirk Cox, the Republican speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, has said he thinks Northam should step down but is hesitant about seeking to remove him.
The ordeal has a lot of layers to it — political, historical, and, obviously, racial. Wearing blackface is deeply offensive, whatever the context. Northam has shown contrition, but he doesn’t have to remain in public office. He could step down and let Fairfax, a descendant of slaves, take over. Democrats have largely taken the side of asking Northam to resign, but thus far, he’s not going for it.
This started with a yearbook picture — and an abortion bill
Prior to the yearbook photo’s publication, Northam had already been in the news last week over confusing remarks he made about a Virginia abortion bill, House Bill 2491, that would roll back some of the state’s requirements on abortion, including a 24-hour waiting period and a requirement that second-trimester abortions take place in a hospital.
As Vox’s Anna North explained, the bill was always a long shot legislatively, especially because of a controversy over a provision that would reduce the number of doctors required to sign off on a third-trimester abortion from three to one. In a Wednesday radio interview, Northam discussed the matter, and that’s where things went awry, per North:
Appearing to discuss what would happen if a child was born after a failed attempt at abortion, he said, “the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
Some took Northam’s comments as an endorsement of infanticide. “In just a few years pro-abortion zealots went from ‘safe, legal, and rare’ to ‘keep the newborns comfortable while the doctor debates infanticide,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) in a statement on Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Gov. Northam told Vox his comments were “absolutely not” a reference to infanticide, and that they “focused on the tragic and extremely rare case in which a woman with a nonviable pregnancy or severe fetal abnormalities went into labor.”
The remarks stirred a national debate about abortion amid several recent state efforts to expand abortion access.
Subsequently, the photo of Northam’s page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook with a picture of a man in blackface and another in a KKK costume began to bubble up in conservative media outlets. And on Friday, the Virginian-Pilot published the photo and story accompanying it. Other media outlets confirmed it as well.
BREAKING: Gov. Ralph Northam yearbook page shows blackface and Klan photohttps://t.co/6A89ejp5Ho— The Virginian-Pilot (@virginianpilot) February 1, 2019
Northam said it was him and then said it wasn’t
When the Virginian-Pilot reported on the photo on Friday, the outlet noted that it wasn’t clear whether Northam was actually in it. Northam apparently wasn’t clear on it either.
In a statement on Friday evening, Northam apologized for the picture and said he was, indeed, one of the people shown, though he didn’t say which one.
“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,” he said. “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.”
He also released a video response on Twitter accepting his actions but refusing to resign.
My fellow Virginians, earlier today I released a statement apologizing for behavior in my past that falls far short of the standard you set for me when you elected me to be your governor. I believe you deserve to hear directly from me. pic.twitter.com/1rSw1oxfrX— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) February 2, 2019
On Saturday morning, there were varying reports about what Northam would do — some suggested he was going to step aside; others said he wouldn’t. He reportedly called members of the state party to tell them he didn’t think it was him in the picture after all. And at a press conference on Saturday, he said the same publicly.
“I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe,” Northam said. “The photo appears with others I submitted on a page with my name on it. … In the hours since I made my statement yesterday, I reflected with my family and classmates from the time and affirmed my conclusion that I am not the person in that photo.”
He said there is “no way that I have ever been in a KKK uniform” but that he does have a recollection of wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume at a San Antonio dance contest. He explained he used “just a little bit of shoe polish” to dress up and won the contest because he had learned how to moonwalk. A reporter asked Northam if he could still moonwalk, and he seemed to contemplate responding before he said his wife told him “inappropriate circumstances.”
this Ralph Northam dude was really about to moonwalk until his wife told him to chill. pic.twitter.com/ZzH1VKkUEY— Daniel Dudley (@DDisBORED) February 2, 2019
A lot of people want Northam to step aside
Many Democrats were quick to call for Northam to step down as soon as the picture surfaced, but some initially stood by him. But as time went on — and especially after Saturday’s press conference — Northam found himself increasingly alone.
At Vox, Amanda Sakuma listed out the dozens of Democrats, groups, and public figures condemning Northam’s actions and calling on him to resign. The group includes Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, multiple Virginia members of Congress, multiple potential and declared 2020 presidential candidates, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, and the Virginia Democratic Party.
Full statement demanding that Governor Northam resign immediately. pic.twitter.com/XEf0H6HvOf— Virginia Democrats (@vademocrats) February 2, 2019
Many Republicans have called for Northam to step aside as well.
VA Governor Ralph Northam’s past racist behavior caps a week where he displayed an egregious lack of respect for human dignity and the American values that we fight every day to uphold. Staying in office only poisons efforts to grow together as one nation. He should resign.— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) February 2, 2019
What Ralph Northam did was unforgivable. Given his statements on the right to life coupled with the most recent revelations, he has lost the moral authority to continue to govern and should resign immediately.— Virginia GOP (RPV) (@VA_GOP) February 1, 2019
Fairfax, who would become acting governor if Northam resigned, said in a statement that he was “shocked and saddened” by the yearbook picture and said he “cannot condone the actions from his past that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping, and intimidation.” He did not say he thinks Northam should resign.
There’s more to this than the basic facts
The basic ins and outs of the controversy surrounding Northam are significant enough, but there’s also a lot of context here.
The origins of blackface date back to the minstrel shows of mid-19th century. White performers darkened their skin with polish and cork, put on tattered clothing and exaggerated their features to look stereotypically “black.” The first minstrel shows mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations, depicting black people as lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
The performances were intended to be funny to white audiences. But to the black community, they were demeaning and hurtful.
But in more recent history, the photo is notable when juxtaposed with Northam’s 2017 gubernatorial campaign. His Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, ran a campaign that included fearmongering about immigrants and defending Confederate statues. Democrats decried his bid as “the most racist campaign in Virginia history.”
As Vox’s Jane Coaston lays out, some in the GOP have seized on the Northam picture as proof that Democrats can be just as racist as Republicans. They say that Democratic accusations of racism among Republicans are just politics. Of course, just because Northam may or may not have appeared in a racist photo does not mean Gillespie’s actions were not also racist.
There have also been a lot of questions about why the Northam picture appeared now and not during the 2017 election or at some other point before this. It appears timed to the abortion debate in Virginia right now.
Despite the pressure, Northam seems to be digging in. It’s not clear how much longer he’ll hold on. Northam on Monday morning reportedly told staff he needs more time to decide.