Virginia Attorney General Admits He, Too, Wore Blackface

All three of the Commonwealth's statewide elected officers are the subject of scandal.

In a blog post titled “Yes, Virginia, This is Chaos, ” Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik preface their analysis of the kerfuffle over scandals in the Commonwealth’s politics with a caution that, “Given the fast-moving developments in our home state over the last several days, we hope it’s not obsolete by the time you read it!” Alas, it has been.

After a discussion of the blackface scandal involving Governor Ralph Northam that has been covered extensively already here at OTB, they note that the ordinary successor in the event of a resignation would be Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax but, alas, he, too, is now embroiled in a scandal over alleged sexual misconduct some 15 years back. So, they observe,

In the event that both Northam and Fairfax resign, Attorney General Mark Herring (D) would become governor. In the immediate aftermath of the Northam bombshell and Fairfax’s seemingly likely ascension to the governorship, we thought back to Herring’s decision to defer to Northam in advance of the 2017 election (as it was, Northam did not face an unopposed path to the nomination as former Rep. Tom Perriello made a late decision to challenge him, but lost in a landslide). With Fairfax potentially becoming governor, Herring — who previously announced his intention to seek the governorship in 2021 — could have been effectively blocked. Yet as of now, Herring is only one of the three elected Democratic statewide officeholders without a cloud over his head. [emphasis mine]

Not so fast, my friends. The situation has gotten even weirder:

Virginia sank deeper into political turmoil Wednesday when another top Democrat — Attorney General Mark Herring — admitted putting on blackface in the 1980s, when he was a college student.

With Gov. Ralph Northam’s career in extreme peril over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, Herring issued a statement saying he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party as a 19-year-old at the University of Virginia.

Herring — who has been among those calling on Northam to resign — said he was “deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation.” He said that in the days ahead, “honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general.”

The 57-year-old attorney general issued the statement after rumors of a blackface photo of him had circulated at the Capitol for a day or more. But in his statement, he said nothing about the existence of such a photo.

Now, dressing up as a rapper is arguably not “blackface” in the racist tradition of the minstrel show. Certainly, in 1980 Virginia, it wouldn’t have been thought of the same way. But it’s hard to see how wearing blackface in 1984 requires Northam to step down from the governorship while wearing it in 1980 doesn’t disqualify Herring from rising to the same office.

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Purity uber alles!

    Madness.

  2. KM says:

    *sigh* The South – the gift that keeps on giving…..

    Seriously, we’ll be in 2100’s and there will still be a Southern candidate with embarrassing pics/ video of them doing something racist – most likely being a Tiki Torchbearer or MAGA-hat-wearing Trumpkin (“only in college when I was trolling!!”). We’ll have the same people saying we should let it go because nobody really “knew better” at the time and that’s just how it was back then.

    I’m not looking forward to my grandkids try to explain away MAGA pics the same way blackface is being explained away now. I’m aware a large percentage of red states are going to have future candidates with this problem so we really need to sort this crap out now…..

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  3. Mikey says:

    But it’s hard to see how wearing blackface in 1984 requires Northam to step down from the governorship while wearing it in 1980 doesn’t disqualify Herring from rising to the same office.

    Herring got out in front of it and his response was good.

    Northam, not so much. Not that the picture was good, of course, but IMHO there was a window within which he could have salvaged things. Unfortunately for him, he blew it.

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  4. DrDaveT says:

    But it’s hard to see how wearing blackface in 1984 requires Northam to step down from the governorship while wearing it in 1980 doesn’t disqualify Herring from rising to the same office.

    Because (again) what requires Northam to step down is his behavior after the photograph became public, not the actions depicted in the photograph. I had thought we had established this beyond question in the previous threads about Northam (and Kavanaugh).

    It is possible to have been an idiot (moral or otherwise) in the past, and get over it, and be qualified for public service. Northam’s actions show that, even if he (hypothetically) has long since repudiated racism and racist behaviors, he hasn’t yet overcome other disqualifying idiocies.

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  5. Neil J Hudelson says:

    I’ll let the citizens of Virginia figure out whether this is disqualifying Herring, but I do think a few things distinguish his blackface issue from Northam’s:
    1. His apology didn’t involve an attempted moonwalk.
    2. He (as of right now) hasn’t walked back his apology by claiming no, no, actually nevermind that wasn’t me in the picture. I know yesterday I said it was. Shut up.
    3. He didn’t deliberately chose a photo of him in black face or klans robes as one of three or four photos representing him as a senior medical student.
    4. As you mentioned, the purpose for the blackface–while still wrong!–was not purposefully harmful, while dressing as a ‘minstrel’ is.
    5. It bears repeating, he didn’t attempt to moonwalk during his apology.

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  6. Kylopod says:

    What is the reason people have been calling on Northam to step down? Is it the mere fact that he wore blackface decades ago when he was barely out of college, or is it the ham-handed, unconvincing way in which he’s addressed the controversy? If he’d said “Yes, I posed in a racist photo when I was very young, and I deeply regret it,” instead of going on this ludicrous “It wasn’t me” game, shouldn’t the controversy have blown over? We’ll have to see what Herring has to say, but at least he’s owning up to it, something Northam has yet to do. I think we have to stop and have a serious conversation about what precisely is disqualifying.

  7. James Pearce says:

    Maybe this will be the last gasp of a party in desperate need of reform…

    A boy can dream.

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  8. James Pearce says:

    @Mikey:

    Herring got out in front of it and his response was good.

    Is that supposed to make it all okay?

    Do you realize you’re THIS close to saying that wearing blackface 30 years ago doesn’t really matter?

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  9. Gustopher says:

    Apparently, wearing blackface was just normal for white Virginia folk.

    Are we sure Fairfax isn’t just wearing blackface right now?

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  10. Mikey says:

    @James Pearce: Are you even remotely capable of responding to people without building strawmen and/or completely ignoring all context?

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  11. Neil J Hudelson says:

    @Mikey:

    No, he’s not. His purpose here is to troll teh libruls.

    Pearce today:

    Is that supposed to make it all okay?

    Do you realize you’re THIS close to saying that wearing blackface 30 years ago doesn’t really matter?

    Pearce [checks calendar] four days ago:

    I think it would be better to recognize how stupid it is to judge something that happened 30-40 years by today’s wacky standards [emphasis his].

    Pearce has never cared to be consistent, or to even try to defend his asinine statements. Just read this cringe-worthy exchange with Bruce Henry.

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  12. Teve says:
  13. MarkedMan says:

    The purpose of a troll is not to be correct, but rather to derail the conversation.

  14. Guarneri says:

    @Mikey:

    Ah, yes. Sweet, dear context. Like unsubstantiated claims of sexual assault, being the rape captain…… yes, we must have context. Context, context, context. I think it was invented in the last week.

    And when do we see the press conference with holier than thou claims that Fairfax’ accuser must be believed. Or does that require context?

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  15. MarkedMan says:

    But it’s hard to see how wearing blackface in 1984 requires Northam to step down from the governorship while wearing it in 1980 doesn’t disqualify Herring from rising to the same office.

    I’ll take a whack at this. There is simply no possible explanation of a picture of a Ku Klux Klan Wizard with a slave that is not racist in its intent. However, dressing like a rapper is not inherently racist. Intent is everything. And in the early 80’s applying makeup to make yourself look like a singer would not have been considered automatically out of bounds. The idea that all skin darkening makeup is equivalent to declaring enthusiastic support for slavery is a modern idea, and it is certainly a learned idea, not something you can automatically deduce.

    Let me give a modern example. More people are into cosplay than ever before and they put way more effort into it than was even imaginable a couple of decades ago. I’ve seen people paint virtually their entire bodies bright blue in order to pull off Avatar cosplay and I don’t even go to any cons. It’s an accepted axiom of cosplay that you shouldn’t shame someone for going as whoever they want. Men can go as the new female Doctor Who, and women can go as the male versions. And you can find people of all body types going as Comic Book Superheroes. Again, the message is that nothing is off limits. In fact, there is a whole sub-genre where people apply makeup and paint their clothing to look like two dimensional manga heroes, and part of that is matching skin tones. Now imagine that a white boy is immersed in this world and is a huge Blade fan. Is automatic that he would think, I can cosplay as a woman, as a Japanese anime character, as a devil, but it is obviously out of bounds for me to cosplay as this iconic comic and movie hero? Of course not. If the kid is moderately socially aware he would realize that in this day and age he is stepping into dangerous territory and that the cosplay value system that says “go as what you love, no shame” is only partly true. But that is learned values, not deducible ones.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey: @DrDaveT: @Neil J Hudelson: As I noted in my post on this Monday, we fundamentally agree that it was Northam’s poor handling of this moreso than the blackface that makes his continued service as Governor politically impossible. Still, it’s hard to argue that he should resign and be replaced by someone who also wore blackface but handled the fallout with more aplumb.

    @MarkedMan: As noted in the OP, I agree that blackface as part of a rapper costume has a different connotation. Still, “Northam must resign over blackface” and “it’s okay that he be replaced by the third in the line of succession, who also wore blackface” is a weird juxtaposition.

  17. James Pearce says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:

    Pearce has never cared to be consistent

    If you don’t see any consistency there, I can’t help you.

    Let me be more clear: Saying that wearing blackface in the 80s is so unforgivable that one must resign, unless of course you can be appropriately contrite…is basically saying that wearing blackface in the 80s is, in fact, forgivable.

    It’s your pose, dude. Not mine.

    (BTW, I think I came off pretty good in that “cringe-worthy” exchange. 2019 has seen the Dems proudly boast of shutting down the government and prematurely declaring victory over the wall fight, and that was before these scandals in Virginia. You really think a Dem Senator is going to win the presidency in 2020? Not unless his name is Former Vice President Joe Biden.)

  18. Sleeping Dog says:

    …hard to see how wearing blackface in 1984 requires Northam to step down from the governorship while wearing it in 1980 doesn’t disqualify Herring…

    James, tried to come up with a good argument to disagree with you on this for arguments sake, but can’t. The only thing that I would say is that there are things that I did at 19 that I wouldn’t have done in my mid to late 20’s.

  19. Teve says:

    blackface/ Klan hoods in 1979 unc-ch yearbook.

    I’m guessing in the next week journalists are going to find this all over yearbooks from the south, and probably a handful from the north too.

  20. Mikey says:

    @James Pearce:

    Saying that wearing blackface in the 80s is so unforgivable that one must resign, unless of course you can be appropriately contrite…is basically saying that wearing blackface in the 80s is, in fact, forgivable.

    Nobody here has said blackface is “unforgivable.” That’s the false premise YOU created. That’s the strawman YOU built.

    2019 has seen the Dems proudly boast of shutting down the government

    Straight-up Trumpism. Not that we didn’t know already.

  21. TastyBits says:

    It is highly unlikely that in 1980 (or thereabout) a white guy from Virginia was dressing up as a rapper he admired. I doubt that he knew about Curtis Blow, Grandmaster Caz, Grandmaster Flash or any of the guys in the Furious Five. It is possible that he knew about Sugarhill Gang, but I doubt he knew what any of them looked like. Most likely, it was derisive, and he was an updated version of a blackface minstrel.

    I am sure that there is more than one photograph of a white gal dressed as a ‘welfare queen’, and has anybody heard of a Pimp & Ho party? I suspect that the fun is just beginning.

  22. Tyrell says:

    This sort of thing has probably been done a lot more than most people might think. If it was part of some sort of Halloween prop or outfit it is more excusable and can be overlooked. For one thing, how would anyone know who it is except maybe a few friends or family members?

  23. James Pearce says:

    @Mikey:

    Nobody here has said blackface is “unforgivable.”

    Right. It’s not unforgivable; it’s just fatal to one’s political career.

  24. the Q says:

    The Italian Anti Defamation Committee just announced it would be scouring all college yearbooks from 1974-1984 to find out if anyone dressed up for “Toga Parties” or “Godfather” inspired mob gear.

    Said Tony “two Chins” Gambano, “if we find anyone who mocked Italians by dressing up in togas or gangsta Mafia inspired garb, we will ask these racists to quit their seats in Congress or state legislatures. We have no tolerance for these anti WOP people who mask their true hatred behind the hackneyed “that was a long time ago.”

    The La Raza folks also chimed in saying “anyone found wearing a poncho, a sombrero and fake bandito mustaches during college “Taco” nights” will be exposed for the Latino hating racists they are.

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  25. An Interested Party says:

    …2019 has seen the Dems proudly boast of shutting down the government…

    Someone help me out here…which Democrats were proudly boasting of shutting down the government?

    @the Q: Are you really trying to downplay a white person wearing blackface? You can’t really be doing that…

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mikey: No, he’s not; which is why I try to avoid reading his posts.

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  27. Matt says:

    @James Pearce: I love how you focus on the blackface but not the dude dressed up in Klan robes next to the blackface on his yearbook page. Like that doesn’t matter at all…

    Personally if dude had just come out and admitted it like the other black face confessionals then things would of went much better for him…

    Note that others in the government have admitted to wearing blackface…

  28. James Pearce says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Someone help me out here…which Democrats were proudly boasting of shutting down the government?

    I believe in giving credit where credit is due. The government would be shut down right now if Trump hadn’t changed tactics on the wall. (And to be clear, that’s what he did.)

    Do you imagine shame among the Dems if that were the case?

    @Matt:

    I love how you focus on the blackface but not the dude dressed up in Klan robes next to the blackface on his yearbook page. Like that doesn’t matter at all…

    It clearly matters. It shows that the blackface was part of some gag. He wasn’t in some minstrel show. He wasn’t part of an actual klavern meeting. It wasn’t a re-enactment. He was at some costume party, goofing with his buddies, and all that photo shows is that there weren’t very many people in 1984 who were 2019 “woke.”

    Should the photo cost him his political career? I tend to say no –because it’s a relic of a time and a person who doesn’t exist anymore– but I can also make allowances for political realities. And if Northam must go because the photo has become a distraction and confidence has been lost, then he’s gotta go.

    But I also understand that is not the principled position.

  29. Tyrell says:

    @DrDaveT: Since when do politicians displaying idiocies disqualify them?

  30. Teve says:
  31. DrDaveT says:

    @Kylopod:

    Is it the mere fact that he wore blackface decades ago when he was barely out of college, or is it the ham-handed, unconvincing way in which he’s addressed the controversy?

    The latter. If he were a food, it would be chicken and waffles.

  32. James Joyner says:

    @TastyBits: 1980 would indeed have been awfully early for a white suburbanite to have been a rap aficionado. I’d been exposed to the genre well before graduating high school in 1984 but was decidedly not a fan.

  33. MarkedMan says:

    @TastyBits: @James Joyner:

    1980 would indeed have been awfully early for a white suburbanite to have been a rap aficionado.

    I’m going to disagree here. Run DMC was breaking into the top levels of the charts in 1983. The Beastie Boys were topping the charts by 1984. Salt n’ Pepa didn’t chart until 85 but they were considered mainstream rap by then. In fact, by the early eighties the “Disco Sucks” contingent (I admit to being part of that group) had been mostly replaced by the “Rap is Crap” crew. But the existence of an “anti” movement amongst young whites means that the “pro” movement was already in place.

    That said, I agree that is no evidence that Northam was such a pro-rap afficianado. I’m sure there were more white guys dressing up as rappers in the same spirit as people dressed up as gangsters and pimps, i.e. racist but in a mostly unaware sense, as well as those that were doing so in an overtly racist way. But there were those who dressed as their favorite performers. I have a vague recollection that I was at a Halloween party that would have been mostly attended by white people and that two female friends dressed as Salt N’ Peppa. Salt N’ Peppa were pretty big amongst my mostly white female friends in the mid to late eighties as they had succeeded at a man’s game and took no sh*t but had a lot of fun. The costumes may have just been the clothes the band members typically wore (baseball jackets?) and probably they had a boombox with a cassette ready to go. But they no doubt wore regular makeup in darker shades, as that would have just been seen as committing to the costume.

    Side note: the worst costume fail from that era was a close friend who decided to go as Alfalfa from our gang. He tried all kinds of mousse and gel to make his hair stick up and nothing worked, so he made the fatal decision to go with vaseline. Which worked wonderfully. And took weeks before he finally got rid of it completely.

  34. Kylopod says:

    @MarkedMan: As a white kid in the ’80s, my first, grainy memories of rap were not something I associated with gangsters or pimps–that came later. It seemed more like a cheesy fad, though I took the lesson from my parents who told me rock n’ roll was once, too, dismissed as a fad (and there was also a racist element to some of those critics). Indeed, pretty soon rap elements were getting incorporated into pop music–for a period of time from the mid-’80s forward it seemed like just about every pop song had to put in an obligatory “rap” verse serving as the song’s bridge. And people started calling things rap that really weren’t. The credits to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video described Vincent Price’s segment as “rap” with quotation marks around the word, maybe because even they realized it was as much “rap” as “The Monster Mash.”

  35. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I’m going to disagree here. Run DMC was breaking into the top levels of the charts in 1983. The Beastie Boys were topping the charts by 1984.

    Right. But *1980* was just a few months into the existence of hip-hop, which started appearing on the streets of New York only in 1979.

  36. An Interested Party says:

    I believe in giving credit where credit is due. The government would be shut down right now if Trump hadn’t changed tactics on the wall. (And to be clear, that’s what he did.)

    A pity that your original argument was something completely different (Democrats bragging about the shutdown)…good grief, here lately you’ve been moving the goalposts out of the stadium and into another completely different country…