Georgia Geen, Capital News Service
Resisting pressure to resign, Gov. Ralph Northam said Saturday that he is not one of the individuals in a racist photo found on his medical school yearbook page, but he revealed he once “darkened” his skin as part of a Michael Jackson costume in a dance contest the same year.
At an afternoon press conference, Northam said the costume was not blackface — which is when a non-black person uses makeup or another substance to appear black. At the San Antonio event, which occurred in 1984, the same year the yearbook photo was taken, a 25-year-old Northam put shoe polish on his cheeks. He said he used a small amount because the substance is “hard to get off.”
“I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that,” Northam said.
Blackface in the U.S. originated with 19th-century theatrical performances and was used to perpetuate racist stereotypes.
Northam’s defense centers around the San Antonio event. On Saturday, he said that he had no recollection of attending the party where the racist photo was taken but that he remembers “darkening” his skin to look like Jackson. To Northam, his clear recollection of one event and not the other is the sign he wasn’t “the person in that uniform and I am not the person to the right.”
After conversations with family, friends and former classmates, Northam said he came to the conclusion that he was not in the photo. He said he previously identified himself as being in the image because of all of the “hurt” it was causing.
Northam did not have a specific explanation for how the photo appeared on his yearbook page. He said he submitted three other photos but did not recognize the image in question. It’s possible, he said, that the photo belonged to a classmate and was incorrectly placed on his page.
Eastern Virginia Medical School, Northam’s alma mater that produced the yearbook, issued a statement by its president saying the institution shares the “outrage, alarm and sadness voiced by our alumni, the press and many on social media” over the yearbook image.
In Northam’s Virginia Military Institute yearbook, one of his nicknames was listed as “coonman” — “coon” is a racial slur referring to black people. He said two older classmates referred to him as such, but he said that he did not know their motives or intent and that he regrets the fact that the nickname was used in the yearbook.
Since the photo surfaced Friday, Northam has maintained that he will not resign.
“As long as I feel I can lead, I will continue to do that,” Northam said. “If I reach a point where I am not comfortable with that, obviously I will sit back and have that discussion.”
Scores of groups and individuals have called for Northam to step down as governor in response, including Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the NAACP and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. The calls for his resignation still sounded after his denial of the photo.
“It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a statement released more than 24 hours after the photo first surfaced.
Many Virginians aren’t receptive to Northam’s remorse. Saturday morning, a group of about 25 protesters urged Northam to resign. Next to the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, David Williams stood with a sign that read, “Step down and do VA a favor.” He attended the march with his two young-adult daughters.
“I’m out here, really, to show my kids that you must protest when anything comes up that’s wrong,” Williams said. “The pictures that we saw was very disturbing and very hurtful, especially to African Americans.”
— Georgia Geen (@georgia_geen) February 2, 2019
Francesca Leigh Davis, who attended the protest, said she was “appalled” at Northam’s reaction to the backlash.
“You put black people through this shame, the people who voted for you to stand in this office. I’m insulted that black people are used like pawns in this particular party,” Davis said. “Think of each and every black vote that was cast for you. We trusted you.”