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Here's where we're at with the blackface controversy plaguing Virginia’s governor

He's resisting mounting pressure to step down

by Emma Ockerman
Feb 4 2019, 6:07pm

Just since Friday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has admitted to appearing in a racist photo in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, walked back that comment, admitted to wearing blackface on another occasion, and refused to resign from his position, despite mounting pressure against him.

The photo threatening Northam’s political career — first published Friday by the right-wing website Big League Politics — shows two people: one in blackface and another dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam immediately apologized for appearing in the photo, which appears on a yearbook page bearing his name, although he didn’t disclose which person he was. Then, during a bizarre press conference Saturday, Northam countered, "I am telling the truth today: That was not my photo.” He acknowledged that might be hard for some to believe.

The Democratic governor, 59, offered, instead, that he had appeared in blackface another time, saying he “put some polish” on his face during a dance contest in the 1980s where he dressed as Michael Jackson. He then appeared to consider moonwalking for a reporter who asked a follow-up question about the dance contest. A slew of Democratic 2020 contenders, Virginians, members and leaders of his own party, the Congressional Black Caucus and more called for his resignation after the press conference. Northam, in office since January 2018, has said he’s only leaving if he feels he can’t do his job effectively, but he’s continuing to meet with members of his Cabinet and other state administration officials on the issue, according to the Washington Post.

Here’s where we’re at in this saga:

There’s a guy ready to take his place

If Northam steps down, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — a young African-American Democrat — will fill his seat. The 39-year-old, who is a descendant of a Virginia slave, would become the second African-American governor in the history of the Southern state, where blacks account for about 22 percent of the population.

Fairfax hasn’t said Northam should resign over the photo yet, but he did say on Saturday that he was “shocked and saddened” by the incident. Virginia’s last governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, sees Northam eventually stepping down.

“Ralph will do the right thing for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe told CNN Sunday.

However, late Sunday night, Big League Politics reported that a fellow at Stanford University alleged in a private Facebook post that a man — supposedly Fairfax, she didn’t name him but said he won statewide office in 2017 — sexually assaulted her in 2004, at the Democratic National Convention, and was about to get a “very big promotion.” Big League Politics reported the post based off a screenshot sent by a woman in Virginia.

Fairfax issued an early-morning statement denying the report. He also alleged that the accuser approached the Washington Post before his 2018 inauguration, and that the news organization didn’t find the allegations to be reputable. Fairfax said he would take “legal action” against the claim, but he didn’t elaborate.

“Tellingly, not one other reputable media outlet has seen fit to air this false claim,” Fairfax said in his statement. “Only now, at a time of intense media attention surrounding Virginia politics, has this false claim been raised again.”

The racist yearbook photo was a part of a racist yearbook

The racist photo on Northam’s 1984 personal yearbook page is one of many problematic images in the medical school’s yearbook.

For one, there’s a photo of a man dressed in drag and blackface referencing Diana Ross, according to images reviewed by CNN. Then there’s another photo of three men dressed in white dresses, pearls, wigs and blackface.

Plus, on the yearbook’s pharmacology page, there’s a photo of a white man holding a coffee cup that reads: “We can’t get fired! Slaves have to be sold.” Another photo shows a student groping an unclothed mannequin with the caption: “I never try to divulge my true feelings while examining my patients,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The president of Eastern Virginia Medical School, Richard V. Homan, said Saturday that he’ll be reviewing the school’s yearbooks to “examine our campus culture.” In the yearbook, Northam is also labeled with the nickname “Coonman,” which could be invoking a racial slur.

“This is a time for self-reflection and humility. On behalf of our beloved EVMS, I sincerely apologize for the past transgressions of your trust,” Homan said, according to the Times-Dispatch.

This is about abortion, too

Before the photo was published, Northam was dealing with an entirely different controversy last week. During a radio interview, the former pediatric neurologist was asked about a Virginia bill that would make it easier for women to access a rare third-trimester abortion. When pressed further about what would happen if an abortion procedure resulted in a live birth, Northam said “the infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between physicians and the mother.”

Some Republicans took that to mean Northam was in favor of a bill that supported infanticide, and one state Democratic legislator withdrew her support for the bill. Northam said he wasn’t discussing anything other than the actions physicians may perform in “tragic or difficult circumstances” of “severe fetal abnormalities.”

While Republicans have also called for Northam’s resignation over the racist yearbook photo, many have continued to draw attention to his comments on abortion as well, driving the focus of a debate on a woman’s right to abortion to its most extreme examples. The editor of Big League Politics told the Washington Post that Northam’s comments on abortion inspired an anonymous source to come forward and leak the racist photos.

“Democrat Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia just stated, ‘I believe that I am not either of the people in that photo.’” This was 24 hours after apologizing for appearing in the picture and after making the most horrible statement on “super” late-term abortion. Unforgivable!” President Donald Trump tweeted on Saturday.