Ralph Northam denies he is in blackface, KKK yearbook photo

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Ralph Northam
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Image: Lee District Democratic Committee (CC2.0)

After initially apologizing for a yearbook photograph depicting two men, one in blackface and one in a Klu Klux Klan hood, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has since denied he is either of the men in the photo.

How the Ralph Northam yearbook controversy began

ralph northam yearbook
Image: Eastern Virginia Medical School

A page from Ralph Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook was published by Big League Politics on Friday. Three of the photos are obviously of Northam. A fourth photos shows two men, one in blackface and one in a Klan robe but with no caption or explanation. The Big League Politics blog post contained very little information other than what was evident from the yearbook page itself.

Still, the blogpost was enough to provoke national headlines. Without directly addressing who was who in the photograph Governor Northam issued a full apology within hours of the story breaking.

“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 in a statement.

The apology was not enough to prevent high-profile politicians to immediately call on Northam to resign, including presidential contenders Kamala Harris and Julián Castro.

Local politicians were no less scathing. The Virginia Black Legislative Caucus also issued a statement saying, “these pictures rip off the scabs of an excruciatingly painful history and are a piercing reminder of this nation’s sins. Those who would excuse the pictures are just as culpable.”

Ralph Northam performs a U-turn

One element of the criticism Northam received was his failure to make clear which person he was in the photo – the man in blackface or the man in the Klan hood. At a Saturday morning press conference he made a clarification: he now believed he was neither.

“I believe then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo,” he said. He then admitted, “I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe”

Northam also claimed that he had never owned a copy of the yearbook and before Friday had never seen the photograph or been aware of its publication. Despite the fact that one of the faces is completely obscured, Northam suggested facial recognition software could somehow be used to exhortation him.

Whatever the outcome of tests, Northam made it clear he has no plans to resign.

Bizarrely, Northam did disclose that he has experience wearing blackface. He said at the press conference that he tried wearing shoe polish as part of a Michael Jackson costume in 1984 – the same year as the yearbook photo.

“I had the shoes. I had a glove. And I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks and the reason I used a very little bit because – I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried that – you cannot get shoe polish off,” he said.

“I had always liked Michael Jackson. I actually won the contest because I had learned to do the moonwalk.”

Criticism continues to mount

Yesterday’s press conference did nothing to stem to flow of criticism from all sides of the political spectrum.

Both of Virginia’s US Senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, added their calls for his resignation in a joint statement. President Donald Trump joined in as well, calling Northam’s denial “unforgivable” in a tweet.

Perhaps most devistating for Northam, however, was a statement from Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. Himself an African-American, and the person who would succeed Northam if he resigns, Fairfax notably failed to endorse Northam’s decision to ride the controversy out.

“While his career has been marked by service to children, soldiers, and constituents, I cannot condone the actions of [Northam’s] past that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia’s dark history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping, and intimidation.

“I remain committed to serving and helping to heal the Commonwealth moving forward. Now more than ever, we must make decisions in the best interest of the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

If one of those “decisions in the best interest of the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia” is for Ralph Northam to resign, Fairfax would be in a rare position in Virginia politics. Virginia normally restricts governors to a single four-year term. If Fairfax assumes office he could run in 2021 as an incumbent and would almost certainly win the Democratic nomination.

This would upset the plans of other prominent Democrats, especially Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who declared his intention to run for governor in December.

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