Virginia Governor Faces Pressure To Resign Over Racist Yearbook Photos
National and Virginia Democratic officials are calling on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to resign over racist photos in his 1984 medical school yearbook.
The controversy that erupted late yesterday after the revelation of a medical school yearbook page attributed to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam that includes photos of people in blackface and Ku Klux Klan attire widened overnight as more and more prominent Virginia and national officials began to call on the Governor to resign:
Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia faced intense pressure to resign on Saturday after losing the support of leading Virginia Democrats, including black lawmakers in the Legislature, after admitting that he posed in a racist costume as a medical student more than 30 years ago.
Mr. Northam, who apologized on Friday night but said he planned to finish his term, was increasingly isolated, and Virginia Democratic leaders said privately that he would most likely realize he had no choice but to quit.
As calls for Mr. Northam to step down came from Democratic presidential candidates and even members of the state’s congressional delegation on Friday, the Legislative Black Caucus, a strong ally of Mr. Northam, who was elected in 2017, at first held off. But after an emotional meeting with the governor Friday evening, the caucus said in a statement, “It is clear he can no longer effectively serve as governor.”
The statement prompted others to call for his resignation. Among them were former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Mayor Levar Stoney of Richmond, both longtime allies of the governor, who spoke with him by phone before issuing their statements.
Mr. Northam would be the first Virginia governor to resign since at least the Civil War. Under the Virginia Constitution, Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax, a Democrat and the second black person to be elected to statewide office in Virginia, would assume the governorship.
Mr. Northam’s overnight political implosion began with the surfacing of a photograph from 1984 in his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, showing Mr. Northam and another man, one in blackface and the other in white Ku Klux Klan robes. The governor, in issuing his apology, did not say which costume he had worn, but offered his “absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their governor.”
It was the latest agony over race to befall Virginia, a state that in modern times often seemed to have moved beyond its 400 years of slavery and a 20th-century embrace of segregation, only to be painfully reminded that the past isn’t always past.
More from The Washington Post:
RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) faced an avalanche of calls for him to step down Saturday – fallout from a 1984 medical school yearbook photo in which he appeared that showed one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.
Northam spent Friday night huddled with advisers, determined to hang onto the office he’d assumed not 13 months ago. A meeting with the state’s legislative black caucus went poorly. National Democrats, leading 2020 contenders, said he must resign. And soon even home-state allies who regarded him as a dear friend — including immediate predecessor and patron Terry McAuliffe(D), himself a potential presidential candidate — said he had to go.
By 9 a.m. Saturday, Northam still had sent no official word of his plans. But even friends who hoped he could weather the crisis were bracing for his resignation — a first for a Virginia governor in modern times. They said an announcement either way could come as early as this morning.
More than a dozen protesters braved the frigid air to protest outside the governor’s mansion, holding signs such as “Blackface, no place” and “Step down and do Virginia a favor.” They chanted “Resign now!”
“There’s no question the tide turned,” said one ally, who had been briefed by the governor’s senior staff and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the private discussions.
Northam and his inner circle had been preparing to fight as news of the photograph broke Friday afternoon – he issued a written apology, then a video mea culpa. They planned a “reconciliation tour,” taking him across the commonwealth to say he was sorry in person, his ally said.
“Then everything changed between 6 and 9 p.m.,” the ally said, as national Democrats unleashed a torrent of calls for his resignation.
Northam, 59, admitted to appearing in the photo, dressed either in blackface or in a Klan robe and hood. He did not make clear which costume he wore.
“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,” he said. “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.”
Late Friday, even his most trusted allies called for him to step down, including his onetime partner, McAuliffe, state Senate and House Democrats, Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus and Planned Parenthood. Calls to resign also came from Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Julián Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio.
On Saturday, former vice president Joe Biden, who had campaigned for Northam during the gubernatorial race, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), joined the chorus of resignation calls.
“Black face in any manner is always racist and never okay,” tweeted Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP. “No matter the party affiliation, we can not stand for such behavior, which is why the @NAACP is calling for the resignation of Virginia Governor @RalphNortham.”
The photo reverberated across the country and shook Virginians, who have struggled with a long and difficult legacy around race.
Northam’s ugly yearbook photo and the racist origins of blackface
“Virginia’s history is unfortunately replete with the scars and unhealed wounds caused by racism, bigotry and discrimination,” said Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who plans to run for governor in 2021. “It is imperative that Governor Northam hears and truly listens to those who are hurt by this image as he considers what comes next.”
Herring’s remarks, which stopped short of calling for Northam’s resignation, closely echoed sentiments expressed by the state’s U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, both Democrats.
Members of the state legislature’s Black Caucus said earlier that “what has been revealed is disgusting, reprehensible, and offensive. We feel complete betrayal. The legacy of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow has been an albatross around the necks of African Americans for over 400 years. These pictures rip off the scabs of an excruciatingly painful history and are a piercing reminder of this nation’s sins. Those who would excuse the pictures are just as culpable.”
The caucus was also grappling with revelations in another yearbook, from Northam’s time at Virginia Military Institute. That book listed one of his nicknames as “Coonman,” which some members interpreted as a racial slur.
As of the time that this post is being written, there has been no further comment from Northam’s office, but we’re at the point now where there really isn’t anything more that he can say. In both his written statement issued shortly after the story broke nationwide, the Governor acknowledged that one of the two people depicted on the yearbook page was him, but he didn’t say which one it might be. In the end, of course, it really doesn’t matter which one it is because both are obviously deeply racially divisive to the point where it’s hard to see how Northam can survive this politically and continue in his position as a credible leader for the state going forward. This would seem to be especially true given the fact that the person who would succeed him, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, is an African-American who most recently made the news when he refused to preside over the Virginia State Senate when it honored Robert E. Lee as part of the state’s holiday honoring both Lee and Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. So far, Fairfax himself has not commented on the matter but that may be due to the fact that he stands in the line of succession any believes it would be inappropriate to comment in matter that he would directly benefit from.
In any event, given the speed with which this story has led to calls for Northam’s resignation from national and state Democrats, it’s hard to see how he survives this politically. Indeed, his resignation could come as early as this morning according to a tweet last night from Benjamin Tribbett, a Democratic activist in Virginia who has deep connections to those in power in Richmond. Tribbett also stated that Northam is likely to call a press conference for some time early today. This could be the point at which he resigns, or it could mean something else. In any case, with basically the entire Virginia Democratic Party, as well as every Democratic candidate for President with the exception (so far) of Tulsi Gabbard, whose presence in Hawaii may account for the lack of a response yet due to the time difference, makes it clear that Northam’s position is untenable and that choosing to stay and fight would mean he’s going to be a very lonely man.
Update: Shortly after this post was published, Jonathan Martin of The New York Times reported on Twitter that Northam is claiming this morning that he is not in the photograph:
The governor has also been calling his former med school classmates to jog their memories. He does NOT think he is the man in Klan hood or blackface and doesn’t want to resign before trying to determine who is in that photo.
— Jonathan Martin (@jmartNYT) February 2, 2019
This, of course directly contradicts what Northam said in his statement last night when he said: ”I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.” Of course, even if it’s not Northam in the photo, the fact that he’s on his yearbook page still raises questions. According to at least one medical school classmate of Northam’s the students had control over what appears on the page, meaning that Northam had to choose to put that photo there whether he was in it or not. Meanwhile, there are reports that Northam will hold a press conference this afternoon. If it isn’t to announce his resignation, then I’m not sure what the point is.
Update #2: Northam is holding a press conference at 2:30 p.m. but, as of now, will not be resigning:
NEWS: @RalphNortham will hold a 2:30pm press conference. I’m told he will NOT be resigning.
— Frank Thorp V (@frankthorp) February 2, 2019
He has to go. Not because redemption is impossible, but because redemption must be preceded by confession, contrition and a sincere attempt to make amends. That’s not what’s happened here, this is, “Ooops, I got caught. . . and now I’m sorry.”
Democrats believe in things. We take seriously the things we believe in. We don’t just offer lip service to our ideals and then toss them overboard to worship at the feet of a treasonous Russian asset. We don’t sell our souls just to hold onto power.
Check out the update. Now he’s trying to claim it isn’t him in the photo in question.
He’s not resigning. He’s now denying that it’s even him in the photograph.
I dunno. There are limits to what shame can accomplish in a guilt-based society. Trump, Kavanaugh, and now Northam are testament to that.
It’s probably Northam in the Klan get-up. No way to prove he is or isn’t unless someone who was there comes forward.
😛 😛 😛 😛
Will he explain why, if it’s not him in the photo (bullsh!t), he chose this particular image to grace his yearbook page?
I said that as a joke yesterday, but today a Republican politician Dan Bongino revealed that he’d sent the yearbook photo to the Virginia GOP last October and that they apparently sat on it because they actually were worried that going anti-racist would hurt them more than Northam.
You mean to tell me that all these people calling for his resignation (McAuliffe, Warren, Harris) have never done anything in their distant past that would be considered wrong or shameful?
There is something else going on here.
Well, Doug, be fair, don’t we all sometimes forget whether we dressed up as Klansmen? Or possibly a racist stereotype? And posted it in our yearbook? For med school? At age 25?
The stupid thing is that he seems to think this will help when what it does is suggest that he’s been in similar pictures. At this point he needs to quit due to stupidity if nothing else.
At the time it was a highlight he was so proud of he put it in his yearbook, along with a Kavanaughish “I like beer” quote, but now conveniently can’t remember. I went full Animal House at college, there are undoubtedly embarassing photos (nothing racial/sexist) but nothing I don’t remember. He should have owned it, apologized, and said he had matured since then – but still resign.
That’s what really gets me. This isn’t just about the photo. One of the people is in KLAN ROBES.
Think about that. In the mid 80s if you had, for some insane reason, decided you needed klan robes for a photo, would you have known where to go to obtain them? I wouldn’t have known where to even start on such a task.
The “oh this is just something we all did back then because we didn’t know any better” actually makes the photo worse because it implies so many people at the school just had klan robes lying around that anyone could just grab some without having to really think about it.
Blatant racism isn’t ‘something wrong in their past.’ This is what fails to penetrate the conservative mind. Racism is a fatal virus. It’s killed tens of thousands of African-Americans, uncounted Native Americans, and it killed 6 million of my tribe. It’s not some fcking joke. It’s not the equivalent of shoplifting.
The casual racism conservatives insist on excusing is on a spectrum that includes the KKK, the Nazis and a whole bunch of other people, all of them evil. You’d think by now with a white supremacist in the WH dragging this country through his own pig sty, people like you would have figured that out.
Had this been when he was 16 and had Northam brought it out himself and used it as a teachable moment, things might be different. You know, there’s a reason I bring up my criminal past. I did some bad things, it’s my obligation to lay that out there, to condemn it, to apologize for it, to try and make amends. And I never want to be judged by any standard other than the truth.
Who says he chose that image?
You think what’s depicted in that photo are actual klan robes?
The claim that it wasn’t him leaves a lot more questions than the admission that he was one of those two.
I think redemption is possible. I think it is likely that he was just being a bit of an ass in medical school, trying to offend and shock — trolling people with ironic racism that looks like plain old racism 30 years later.
You don’t have to go through life mentioning every terrible or stupid thing you’ve done to everyone before they find out, you can just actually stop doing that crap and be a better person. And, if it does surface, own up to it.
But, if he is to survive, he has to be honest. Changing his story isn’t a sign of honesty.
If he stayed with “yeah, that was me, I am embarrassed and humiliated by it, and I recognize how offensive it is…” and held tight, and he really hasn’t been seen doing racist crap in the past decade or so, he could have survived. Honesty, contrition and self-awareness are good things.
Now… now I’m morbidly curious with how he is going to explain this, and his previous statement. Memory is fallable, and upon checking his diary and notes, from the time he may discover that his initial recollection was wrong. Did he confuse it with one of the countless racist photos he was in?
I think I would have had an easier time finding or making klan robes than the plaid pants on the blackface guy.
That might just be because of my height, though.
Anyway, not that hard. Look at the cosplay kids do now — that’s impressive.
Also, it was Virginia. You think no one in 1984 Virginia had the old racist uncle who still had his robes in the attic?
Accessibility of robes was not a problem.
I happen to be in VA this weekend. As you can imagine the story is getting a tremendous amount of coverage, and on chat shows. What you might not imagine is the circling of Democrat wagons.
You ask, “Who says he chose that image?”
Well, I do, for one. Let me elaborate on the reasons:
1. Students submit photos of their own choosing for their yearbook pages.
2. Northam himself didn’t blame the choice on anyone else when he first apologized for the picture. Don’t you think that if he could have scapegoated it semi-plausibly and blamed the yearbook editor he’d have done so?
And I have to ask you: Were you remotely serious in asking that question?
Not too surprising, really. There has to be an awareness, post-Covington, that there are pieces missing from this story and that this place should be…untrusted.
All the people absolutely certain the governor should resign can’t even tell you whether he’s in the photo or not.
Can you provide an example of those circled wagons? All I’ve seen from Dems is calls for his resignation, but I’ll admit, I may have missed someone defending Northam. So please ID these circling Dems.
I am absolutely serious in asking that question. I am not a trained journalist, but even I know that they should concern themselves with the 5 Ws.
Who, what, where, when, and why.
Can you tell me which one of the people in that photo is Northam? No.
Can you tell me what they were doing when the photo was taken? No.
Can you tell me where they were? No.
Can you tell me when this happened? No.
Can you tell me why they were dressed like that? No.
All you can tell me is that there’s this offensive photo in Northam’s yearbook, a photo that is apparently so offensive it’s been recreated twice on this very blog and gets flashed every few minutes on CNN, and someone‘s gotta pay.
I mean this in the best of all possible ways, and I’m not going to guess what’s in your heart, but often when you bring up your criminal past it sounds like bragging.
A mixture of:
– “I was a bad-ass” (eesh)
– “Look at me, I’ve come so far” (totally fair to brag about your accomplishments if you can back them up. pride is good)
– “My amazing wife found me under a bridge, and changed my life — I don’t deserve her” (aww, sweet, you really don’t deserve her)
– “Look at me, I’ve come so far — and so can you” (inspirational, sure, go for it)
– “Look at me, I’ve come so far — and so should you.” (a bit of a moral scold)
And, it all comes at no cost to you, at least now. A successful writer with a shady past just has a bit more texture, and petty burglary of businesses where no one got hurt has minimal social stigma.
If, when you were younger, you beat up a gay kid or something, you wouldn’t be so quick to mention it. You could still have turned your life around, and made amends, but public knowledge of this would probably hurt your career and be what you are known for.
Most people wouldn’t likely be the first to bring up being arrested for trying to set fire to a synagogue, or having been the idiot who really got into the offensive costume party and the photos of you in blackface — at least not until it was already well known.
Most people don’t brag about the things they are ashamed of — even if they have changed, and they wouldn’t do those things again. If they are a good person, they’ll own up to it if confronted, but they don’t wear it on their chest for all to see.
You’ve come a long way since you were a minor criminal living under a bridge, and you should be proud of it. A little bragging is deserved. And, in kid-lit, telling kids that they can change themselves and their situation, and using yourself as an example, is undoubtedly a good thing.
(And, I’m betting that what changed was how you took things into your hands, rather than whether you took things into your hands)
But, sometimes, it seems like you use it as a soap box to scold from. At least, that’s how it comes across to me.
God, I’m turning into Pearce.
@CSK: In addition to you personally, apparently the article from the WaPo:
JP, do you actually READ the articles or do you just say whatever you think will make you the most potent contrarian?
@Gustopher: I’m bored and waiting for a friend to pick me up to go to the gym, and I’m flicking through these posts and my finger accidentally hit the downvote button on yours. My bad.
@Gustopher: whether I agree or disagree with your post, you’re not turning into Pearce. You made a cogent argument, and it amounted to more than “black people / women / Democrats are wrong about a thing” which was all Pearce was saying by the time I quit reading him.
Northam just admitted to going to a party in blackface in San Antonio at some point.
That’s a nice list, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the question you yourself posed, and which I and Just Nutha answered.
You poor soul….I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
(But you’re spot on about Michael’s bragging.)
@Just nutha ignint cracker: I didn’t read that WaPo article. I read the excerpt above.
And at any rate, just because Naidorf picked her pictures doesn’t mean that Northam did. We’re talking about forcing an elected governor to resign. Don’t you think we should get facts first?
I think that’s unfair.
1) I’m one of the few people here using his real name, and regularly mentioning my writing pseudonym. And, I’m in kidlit, not a world well-disposed toward law-breakers.
2) Because of what I do I have a platform. My life includes praise from fans. Any time my ego needs a little boost there’s Twitter and Instagram and Goodreads and Amazon. All kinds of lavish praise. Authors – especially kidlit authors – are granted a sort of halo, an assumption of virtue. I can either coast along on a wave of positive assumptions, or I can correct those assumptions.
3) I am a natural pedant (I know: shock!) and part of what I consider my job is educating people, primarily my paying readers. If I’m to be an honest pedant then thing one is to disabuse people of any notion that I deserve the aforementioned halo. I don’t want to teach people from a position of assumed virtue which, at least in the past, I did not deserve.
4) You’re not my only audience. The OTB commentariat isn’t my only audience. Anything I put online is discoverable and yes, I have had fans come across my political writing. But even in talking to you guys I don’t want to play a role I don’t deserve. I spent 22 years lying to everyone but my wife, I never enjoyed it and came to have a visceral revulsion to dishonesty, especially my own. So if I over-share it’s about authenticity and honesty.
5) I try to be as open and honest and transparent as I can be. Really. What you’re missing is that with the click of my mouse I can find people praising me, often in extravagant terms. There are people – thousands, tens of thousands – who say that my books have formed the basis of their lives. I’m not exaggerating, it comes with the territory. I am happy to be praised, but not if that praise rests on false assumptions because then I’d be lying and a fellow author once summarized the fiction writer’s job: use stories to tell the truth.
Northam just had a press conference where he denies being in the photo at all.
And you don’t have enough information to say he was.
…if you had, for some insane reason, decided you needed klan robes for a photo, would you have known where to go to obtain them? I wouldn’t have known where to even start on such a task.
Today you might contact Daryl Davis.
Last time I forgot to put a space between “Mister” and “Bluster”.
This time I left a letter out of my eMail address (again).
The moderation/spam filter is merciless!
Again, I asked why he selected that photo, especially if he’s not in it. You’re not addressing that. Northam claims now he didn’t know what was on his page. Seriously? Some one of his classmates broke into his house, stole the pics, and gave them to the yearbook editor?
At this point, the problem is as much his mangled reversal on the photo as the existence of the photo itself.
I still don’t think he can stay in office. He will be unable to govern effectively. The Virginia Democratic Party has called for his resignation, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee has, and several Democratic elected officials at both the state and federal level–from state delegates all the way to Speaker Pelosi–have. He has lost the confidence of Democrats at all levels, and his handling of this mess has only made it worse.
This is so so obvious, dude.
Sounds like a job for a journalist…
I grew up white boy in a small white town. Not sure if I knew blackface was racist back then; my knowledge of minstrel shows was probably some depictions in cartoons. I was aware of KKK outfits, and I think even my clueless high school self would have thought twice about putting one in the yearbook. Certainly after a year of college, much more so by the end of medical school (which I didn’t go to).
That said, I did stuff I’m not proud of. Probably top of the list is calling somebody the n-word in anger during some high school class. It was a white kid who had just screwed me in some game we were playing. I don’t know why I used that word – my parents never used it; I’m still embarrassed decades later. There was one black kid in the class (in fact, 1 of the only 3 or 4 in the whole high school) who I apologized to within minutes. He was gracious about it, but it didn’t make me feel any better – which is good.
If I ever ran for office, I could see that incident being brought up. Like Northam, I’ve spent decades not being the person who did that, so I have a little bit of sympathy. And his apology sounds pretty sincere. But I do see the other side, where Democrats seemingly shouldn’t tolerate this, since they would crucify any Republican for the same.
@Michael Reynolds: As I said, I can’t tell what’s in your heart, only how I read your words.
And even your last comment, with the “22 years of lying to everyone but my wife” suggests that you waited to be open about it until you were in a spot where it wasn’t likely to hurt you. A redemption story, from crimes that were not appalling, is pretty close to harmless in any community.
And a touch of bragging is hardly the worst quality one could have. Particularly when you’re bragging about recognizing and taking opportunities to change the direction of your life for the better. I wish that was the worst quality I have.
I also only call you out on this because the most interesting part of this series of increasingly pathetic events with Northam, is what a person must do to redeem himself.
You use your story, and set it as a standard, but I think that standard of having publically announced your sins is wrong. I think you’re missing something. And I think what you might be missing is shame, because you are proud that you turned your life around, and because your crimes were as close to harmless as theft can be.
Can a man who dressed up as an offensive, racist caricature be accepted in polite society? Does he have to make amends? How? To whom? How about just not being a racist dumbfvck?
What’s the difference between being sorry that you were caught, and putting something behind you that you find humiliating and then apologizing after it comes out? Is there a difference? Do the last thirty years of his life mean anything? Do they mean more or less than publically preemptively acknowledging his sins?
Of course, now, Northam, after a great initial start at taking responsibility, has since degenerated into a weird farce, to the point where the only way he can stay in office is if he has no shame. He takes all the interesting questions and destroys them.
@Teve: eh, I deserve a downvote for “oh, god, I’m turning into Pearce”. That was uncalled for needling.
(I do think James Pearce often has a point, and sometimes one I agree with, and had been surprised that I agreed with his comment above)
It’s an interesting question. I have in my home one of my kids who is very severe and unforgiving. I’m at the other extreme, my tendency is to let people off the hook, perhaps too easily.
We are in a strange time. Homo sapiens has been hit with a whole lot of serious changes in a very short period of time. The iPhone is only about a decade old, its ubiquity even more recent, and that isn’t just a toy it is a profound re-ordering of the way we deal with the world. Everyone is scrambling whether consciously or not, to cope with a world where we know way too much, way too fast about way too many people.
I don’t think people have really come to grips with how revolutionary the iPhone/Social Media/Automation revolution is. The nearest comparison I can think of is the late 19th, early 20th century – electrification, telephones, cars, planes. But the roll-out of that was so much slower, took so long to extend throughout civilization. And we coped with it beautifully if you set aside such trivialities as WW1, the Great Depression and WW2. The revolution we are living through spread throughout the entire developed, and most of the undeveloped world, in a decade. We have not yet figured out how to reconcile this change with existing mores.
And yet Northam himself won’t definitively rule out one of them was him. Which means there’s a definite chance it might be him or he’d be screaming to the rafter that ain’t him, no way in hell. It means he knows there’s a chance he can be ID’d by someone else and doesn’t want to come out with a hard denial.
Hmmm, one’s in blackface and one’s in Klan robes. Without further context, one is forced to the conclusion that adult men thought it was a good idea to dress up in blackface and Klan robes for some reason. That’s there no good reason for either of those two things to occur in modern times means they were likely up to no good. That they are holding beers only solidifies that conclusion.
Irrelevant. Public, private, at a party, whatever. Still not OK. After all, they likely had to go outside in public to get to wherever that picture was taken so…..
Hmmm, the 80’s? Specifically, 1984 or before the yearbook was published. Does the specific date matter? As in, you’re fishing for a date like Halloween or a party to trot out “it was a costume”? Still inappropriate, even back then.
Because they thought it was OK. Seriously, they were adults in medical school so I’m assuming they were fairly intelligent young men. This sort of behavior was not OK back in the 80’s and yet, there they are locked in black and white print immemorial. I don’t want to hear some cheap excuse like “they didn’t know better”. Bull. Shit. Dressing up like that has ALWAYS had unacceptable racial connotations and there is ZERO reason a couple of med students should be engaging in it, let alone posing for a $#&^%* photo with drinks in their hands!
They did it because they thought it was OK. Period. No need for further “explanations”. Anything else is just trying to CYA decades late.