Northam Denies Yearbook Racism, Admits Blackface Racism — and Still Won’t Resign

It was bad. Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam publicly refused to resign on Saturday, though the press conference he held to explain why may have set a new national standard for political cluelessness and self-immolation. Less than a day after he apologized for appearing in a racist 1984 yearbook photo showing someone in Ku Klux Klan garb next to someone wearing blackface, Northam denied having appeared in the photograph or having had anything to do with it. And the reason he was sure of this, Northam explained, was because he did remember when he won a dance contest that same year after “darkening” his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume.

So if he could remember that racist costume, he claimed he would definitely remember donning the one captured in that yearbook photo, yet could not. Instead, after conferring with his Eastern Virginia Medical School classmates, Northam came to believe that he was not — as he had originally said (and apparently believed) on Friday — one of the people in the photograph. Asked to explain his supposedly mistaken initial admission, Northam replied, “I didn’t study it as well as I should,” but still “felt the need” to “reach out and apologize” because the image was so “horrific.”

He was much more forthcoming, however, when it came to recounting everything he remembered about the time he wore blackface in 1984 at a dance contest in San Antonio, Texas. In addition to apologizing for the pain that new admission would cause, he explained what he wore, how he’d won the contest by imitating Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, and how he had known — apparently from previous experience — not to put a lot of black shoe polish on his face because it was hard to get off:

Then, when an incredulous reporter asked the governor if he remembered how to moonwalk, Northam seemed to actually consider giving a demonstration before his wife dissuaded him:

As far as how the racist yearbook photo came to end up in the yearbook and who was in it, if not him, Northam offered some theories. He said that after speaking with some of his classmates, it came to his attention that numerous photos had been published in the wrong spots in that year’s yearbook, which he claimed he did not buy at the time and had not seen until Friday. He also said that an investigation was underway and he hoped to be able to release more information soon, including the results of a facial recognition software analysis of the two people in the photo. He also pointed out, as media reports have, that there were other photographs of people in blackface throughout the yearbook, and said none of those were him either.

When Northam was also asked to explain why another one of his yearbook profiles, from military school, listed one of his nicknames as “Coonman.” The governor apologized for that too, but claimed that a few students at the school had referred to him by that name but he did not know why, and he was not responsible for the name appearing on his yearbook profile. (He did not explain how two different yearbook staffs could both be at fault for the two known instances of racism appearing in his yearbook profiles.)

Standing back, Northam’s political reasoning for all of this, it would seem, was that he could counteract one disturbing racist incident from his past by admitting to and then denying it, while also admitting to a separate, previously unknown racist incident. That calculation not only revealed a disqualifying level of political incompetence, but treated racism like some kind of commodity that could be measured or arbitrarily reduced. Put another way, as Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith remarked on Twitter during the press conference, “This is what happens when you think your casual racism won’t ever cost you anything.” Northam’s posturing didn’t excuse a racist mistake, it exposed a racist ideology.

Furthermore, as historian Rhae Lynn Barnes pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed on Saturday, the photos also reflect a long disturbing tradition of blackface racism in Virginia:

Virginia’s slave empire ended when African American slaves fought for their freedom in the Civil War .… But when slavery disappeared, fundraising with amateur blackface minstrel shows and city minstrel parades emerged. They featured fictionalized blackface slaves and their Klansman counterparts — a pairing on display in the Northam photo — to sustain Virginia’s infrastructure and segregated economy, as well as to inculcate new generations into a form of white supremacy associated with collegiality, school spirit and patriotism.

Northam’s reasoning as to why he should remain in office after all of these revelations was as troubling as it was boilerplate. He explained that he did not know his dance contest blackface was offensive at the time, and that many others had acted similarly in those days. He said that he hoped Virginians and the people his actions had hurt would give him the opportunity to earn their forgiveness (while he remained governor). Northam said that resigning would be the “easy” way out. Instead, he explained, he would take the harder path — the one which would allow him to participate in and listen to the important conversation about bigotry and racism that his alleged and admitted racism has caused. He would remain governor, he said, because he was still able, he believed, to fulfill his oath of office.

He also noted how many black friends he had in his desegregated high school, and how he’d let a friend who was a person of color explain to him why his blackface dancing had been offensive — “and I will never do it again.”

Meanwhile, outside the alternate reality of Northam’s press conference, the stream of denunciations and calls for his resignation has been quick and brutal since not long after the yearbook photo emerged. The pushback has come from Democratic lawmakers, officials, and presidential candidates; and from the Democratic Party of Virginia; and from liberal organizations, newspaper editorial boards, and anyone else who thought they could or should influence Northam. Over the past 24 hours, the only people who have been defending the governor are the fictitious Democrats who live in the imaginations of right-wing pundits.

On Saturday night, however, Virginia senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner — two of Northam’s most important allies in the state — finally called on him to resign as well. The senators cited his press conference, saying they called him afterwards and told him they “no longer believe” he can effectively serve as governor. With no allies left, it’s undoubtedly a matter of when, not if, Northam is finally forced to realize the same. And when that happens, the job will fall to lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax, a 39-year-old progressive Democrat who took his oath of office with the documents that granted his great-great-great-grandfather freedom from slavery in his pocket. Fairfax would become the second black governor in Virginia’s history.

This post has been updated to include an excerpt from Rhae Lynn Barnes’s Washington Post op-ed.

Northam Cites Time He Wore Blackface to Deny Yearbook Racism