Virginia governor apologizes for racist yearbook photo

Virginia governor apologizes for racist yearbook photo

Ralph Northam

The news of the yearbook photos was initially reported by the conservative website Big League Politics. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Calls to resign pile up as the Virginia governor admits he is one of two people pictured wearing blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes in a decades-old yearbook photo during his time in medical school.


Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday faced mounting pressure to resign after admitting he is one of two people in a decades-old yearbook photo wearing blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes during his time in medical school, drawing blistering criticism from politicians on both sides of the aisle even as he maintained he would not step down.

“Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive,” Northam said in statement. “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.”

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In a later video statement, Northam committed to serving out the remainder of his term.

“I cannot change the decisions I made nor can I undo the harm my behavior caused then and today, but I accept responsibility for my past actions and I’m ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust,” Northam said in the brief video that was posted on his official Twitter account.

Northam’s statements did not address which of the two men he is in photo on his half-page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.

The news of the yearbook photos was initially reported by the conservative website Big League Politics and subsequently confirmed by the Virginian-Pilot and other news outlets.

Julián Castro was the first Democratic 2020 presidential candidate to call on Northam to resign. He was later joined by Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.).

There was a notable split among some in the commonwealth’s congressional delegation on whether to call for Northam’s resignation.

Of Virginia’s House members, Rep. Elaine Lauria and Rep. Abigail Spanberger, two freshmen lawmakers who helped their party retake the chamber by flipping their seats last November, called on the governor to step down.

“We need leaders who will bring us together instead of driving us apart,” Lauria wrote on Twitter. “While it was proper for Governor Northam to apologize, there is no excuse for this type of photograph then or now. Unfortunately, the existence of this photograph does not bring us together.”

“The bigotry depicted in this photograph is appalling,” Spanberger said in a statement. “There always should be serious consequences for actions that demean, intimidate, or threaten our African-American communities. Such conduct is unacceptable for any Virginian — whether occurring in the past, present or future.”

But Virginia’s two senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats and former governors themselves, declined to call for Northam’s resignation, CNN reported.

“I hope the Governor—whose career as an Army officer, pediatrician and public official has always manifested a commitment to justice and equality for all—now takes the time to listen to those he has hurt and reflect on how to move forward,” Kaine said in a statement.

“The Governor must now listen to the people and communities he has hurt, and carefully consider what comes next,” Warner said in a statement.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) praised Northam’s quick apology but called on Virginians to make their voices heard going forward. Scott, as the sole African-American Republican in the Senate, has been critical of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on race.

“To be clear, while a quick apology is good, it does not excuse the choices made by @GovernorVA as an adult enrolled in medical school,” Scott wrote on Twitter. “The people of VA will make their voices heard;I hope they will shout far&wide that there are consequences for such showcases of prejudice&hate.”

Northam was elected governor of Virginia in November 2017 after a bruising race against former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie.

In the past, Northam has not shied away from his family’s history as slave holders and has tried to cast his election as a way for Virginia to move beyond its racial issues, including as home to the Confederacy’s capitol. Previously, the Virginia GOP had accused him of being a “race traitor” for calling for the removal of Confederate monuments.

If Northam were to resign, under Virginia law, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the second African-American elected to statewide office in the commonwealth, would serve out the rest of his term until 2021.

The Virginia Republican Party said that the governor’s past actions combined with his statements on abortion this week make him unfit to continue to lead the commonwealth.

“What Ralph Northam did was unforgivable,” the state party wrote on its official Twitter account. “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.”

Inside the Virginia Democratic Party, Northam received some initial support from state Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw.

“His whole life has been about exactly the opposite and that’s what you need to examine, not something that occurred 30 years ago,” Saslaw told the Washington Post.

But the progressive organization and Guy Cecil, president of the liberal Priorities USA Super PAC, both called on Northam to step down.

“If @RalphNortham is one of the two people pictured in the highly disturbing, horrific photo wearing either blackface or a KKK hood – or if he selected or approved of its use on his yearbook page — he should immediately resign,” wrote on its Twitter account. “There are no excuses for such a racist display.”

“The picture was horrifying and deserves a clear response. Ralph Northam should resign,” Cecil wrote.

Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher of the liberal blog The Daily Kos, which was heavily involved in the midterm elections, called on the governor to resign and said his “racist med school antics have no place anywhere in America.”

Northam this week was criticized by Republican lawmakers for his comments about a proposed bill that would loosen restrictions on women seeking to have abortions in their third trimester. The governor’s office claimed his comments were taken out of context.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this report incorrectly reported Priorities USA president Guy Cecil’s statement.

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