Virginia Governor Faces Questions About Racist Photos In Medical School Yearbook

There's not really a good explanation for this, Governor Northam.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam finds himself in a seriously embarrassing and potentially career-ending situation with the uncovering of a yearbook page that includes two unidentified individuals in blackface and Ku Klux Klan garb:

A photograph on Gov. Ralph Northam (D)’s medical school yearbook page shows a man wearing blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

The image is in a 1984 yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School on a page with other photos of Northam and personal information about the future governor.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist, graduated from the Norfolk medical school in 1984 after earlier graduating from Virginia Military Institute.

The page is labeled Ralph Shearer Northam, along with pictures of him in a jacket and tie, casual clothes and alongside his restored Corvette.

It shows two people, one in plaid pants, bow tie and black faced, and the other in full Klan robes. Both men appear to be holding beer cans.

The person in black face is smiling. Beneath the photo is a writeup about Northam listing his alma mater, noting that his interest is pediatrics and giving a quote: “There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.”

It is unclear whether either man is Northam.

A spokeswoman for the governor did not have an immediate response.

Jack Wilson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia said that if Northam had dressed in either blackface or a KKK robe, he should step down.

“Racism has no place in Virginia,” Wilson said in a statement. “These pictures are wholly inappropriate. If Governor Northam appeared in blackface or dressed in a KKK robe, he should resign immediately.”

The yearbook image was first posted Friday by the website Big League Politics, a conservative outlet founded by Patrick Howley, a former writer for the Daily Caller and Breitbart.

The Washington Post independently confirmed the authenticity of the yearbook by viewing it in the medical school library in Norfolk.

(…)

House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) and other Republican leaders released a statement that said, “This is a deeply disturbing and offensive photograph in need of an immediate explanation by the Governor.”

A Northam ally, Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) defended the governor.

“His whole life has been about exactly the opposite and that’s what you need to examine, not something that occurred 30 years ago,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “While it’s in very poor taste, I would think no one in the General Assembly who would like their college conduct examined. I would hate to have to go back and examine my two years in the Army. Trust me. I was 18 years old and I was a handful, OK? His life since then has been anything but. It’s been a life of helping people, and many times for free.”

Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Stafford), one of the governor’s closest friends, said he had not been able to talk to Northam about the yearbook and did not know what to make of it, but said he stood by him.

“He’s my friend and I will always stand up for him,” said Stuart, who also took exception to claims that Northam had advocated infanticide.

Incredibly, it appears that the yearbook page was something that Northam’s classmates were well aware of:

Joan Naidorf, whose husband Tobin Naidorf’s yearbook page sits opposite Northam’s in the yearbook, said she was surprised the photos are only now just coming out, given Northam’s stature in Virginia politics.

“We’ve often wondered over the last 10 years or so why someone didn’t dig this up sooner,” said Joan Naidorf, a non-practicing emergency room physician who lives in Alexandria.

When she first saw the photo shortly after the yearbook was published, Naidrorf said, “I thought: `That’s awful.’ I assumed it was something at a drunken frat party.”

Naidorf said she didn’t know when or where the photos were taken. Her husband wasn’t available Friday. He had met Northam a few times when they worked medical rotations together, but weren’t friends, she said.

Like other schools, Eastern Virginia Medical School allowed students to pick their own photos for their yearbook page, Naidorf said. Her husband chose their engagement photo and some other personal pictures. Another student chose a picture of men also in blackface and dressed as woman in what appears to be a variety show routine.

Northam has built his 12-year political career on a clean-cut image as a soft-spoken doctor and Army veteran who headed Honor Council at VMI, a demanding job that required him to pass judgement on fellow students who lied or violated the school’s honor code.

First elected to the state Senate from Norfolk in 2007, Northam has had a charmed political career. He was courted by Republicans because of his conservative leanings, and was identified early by then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) as future governor material because of his experience in both health care and the military. Northam served in the Army for eight years after medical school, treating soldiers wounded in the Gulf War.

Politicos in Richmond reacted in muted disbelief, and many declined to speak on the record as the news first circulated Friday. Northam is not a dynamic public speaker but has a reputation for sterling character that has won the trust of Republicans, who worked with him last year to pass Medicaid expansion after four years of resisting it under previous governor Terry McAuliffe (D).

Northam’s office has issued a statement in which he admits he is in the photograph in question:

Given that this story first broke on a conservative blog and that it did so amid an ongoing controversy regarding comments that the Governor made earlier in the week regarding an abortion bill currently pending in the Virginia legislature, I was initially skeptical about the story. However, as the highlighted section noted above states, the authenticity of the contents of the yearbook page have been independently verified by reporters for The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Virginian-Pilot. Additionally, the later news outlet had asked the Governor’s office as early as yesterday and did not receive a response until the statement that was issued late today. Northam’s supporters will likely try to dismiss this as some sort of youthful indiscretion, but he was 25 at the time this was published and the year was 1984, not 1954. Politically, though, this is bound to be damaging to Northam even though he can’t run for re-election as Governor and likely would not be impeached over this.

The rather obvious question, of course, is why this never came to light before. Northam entered politics when he was elected to the Virginia Senate in 2007. Six years later he was the Democratic nominee for Lt. Governor and four years after that, the nominee for Virginia Governor. Throughout that whole time, neither the media nor the candidates he ran against in either the Democratic primaries or the General Election managed to find this even though it was publicly available in the library at the Eastern Virginia Medical School. At the very least, a revelation like this would have been the death knell for his campaign, most especially in 2017 when he was running against progressive Democrat Tom Perriello in the Democratic primary or the General Election where he ended up in a tight race against Republican Ed Gillespie. Of course, in addition to the opposition researchers for these candidates, the media also missed this. In any case, I suspect that Northam’s admission is just going to be the beginning of this story.

Update: CBS News reports that it found similar racially divisive content in Northam’s yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute:

CBS News uncovered a page from Northam’s yearbook at the Virginia Military Institutewhich had nicknames listed underneath his name. One of them was “Coonman,” a racial slur.

As a matter of law, Northam still has two years left on his term in office. Whether he actually survives politically is another question.

Additionally, Northam has released a video expanding on his written statement:

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    I’m convinced. As far as the human brain goes, stupidity is the line of least resistance.

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  2. Mikey says:

    Well, it seems likely Justin Fairfax will be Virginia’s second African-American Governor.

    I mean, he may have been anyway. But a lot sooner, now.

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  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Northam won’t be chasing Mark Warner’s or Tim Kaine’s senate seat if they choose to move on. In retrospect both the Repug and Dem gubernatorial candidates are racists.

    Curious as to why this didn’t pop up in either the primary or general election.

  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    At the very least, a revelation like this would have been the death knell for his campaign, most especially in 2017 when he was running against progressive Democrat Tom Perriello in the Democratic primary or the General Election where he ended up in a tight race against Republican Ed Gillespie.

    In the primary definitely. Had it it come out in the general it might have cost Gillespie support.

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  5. James Pearce says:

    The rather obvious question, of course, is why this never came to light before.

    I’m not so sure that’s an obvious question really. Oppo researchers probably didn’t find because why would they go looking through old yearbooks for embarrassing photos? Wouldn’t that seem like an amateurish waste of time? Someone with a grudge (perhaps over this) put this out there, knowing it would go viral, knowing the context wouldn’t even matter, knowing that the mob would do their thing.

    As a matter of law, Northam still has two years left on his term in office. Whether he actually survives politically is another question.

    He won’t survive politically, but if he doesn’t resign or they don’t impeach him, he’ll finish out those two years.

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  6. Raoul says:

    He is certainly done politically. Obviously we should not rush to judgment whether he should resign but my initial take is -if he is the guy in the hood- well just wow. The blackface is now very objectionable but 35 years ago it wasn’t as much- just saying. Spike Lee’s movie Bambozzled (2000) has some good history on blackface.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Gone before the brunch chefs get started on their Hollandaise.

  8. MarkedMan says:

    Every time the a VA Republican is quoted expressing outrage it should include a parenthetical pointing out that the Republican that ran against Northam and received total support from the Party and the President was not just a racist 35 years ago, but is as vile a racist as been nominated outside the Mississippi / Alabama duoploly in this century.

    In case I wasn’t clear enough: the idea that any self identified Republican is offended by racism is ludicrous on its face.

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  9. Mikey says:

    @MarkedMan:

    In case I wasn’t clear enough: the idea that any self identified Republican is offended by racism is ludicrous on its face.

    Absolutely. Half of them would themselves dress in blackface and Klan hoods and laugh. Maybe more than half.

    But that’s all the more reason for Democrats to maintain a standard declaring those things unacceptable, even for themselves. Especially for themselves.

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  10. Liberal Capitalist says:

    You have to give him props for his appology… it’s not one of those “I’m sorry if anyone is offended” appologies. This one is pretty good:

    “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,” Northam 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. I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their governor.”

    It won’t help him keep his seat, as that type of crap in 1984 was only acceptable in the racist god-fearing southeast and definitely not now (at least not openly), but as far as appologies go, nicely done.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    In case I wasn’t clear enough: the idea that any self identified Republican is offended by racism is ludicrous on its face.

    Indeed, the irony…it burns…I wonder if Jack Wilson is equally offended by Corey Stewart…

  12. gVOR08 says:

    Toast. Probably by the end of the month. Now, were he a Republican, he’d be qualified for, nay, entitled to, a Supreme Court seat.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Honesty, contrition and genuine embarrassment that he found this funny thirty years ago can go a long way.

    If he can grit his teeth and hang in there, while simultaneously apologizing sincerely, and not giving anyone a reason to think that he is currently a racist, I think he could surprise people and come back from this.

    Angrily shouting “I like beer! Do you like beer?” is not going to change any minds. But, that’s not what he is doing here.

  14. Kari Q says:

    @Raoul:

    I was in high school in 1984 and black face most certainly was objectionable at the time.

  15. EddieinCA says:

    He shouldn’t last the weekend.

  16. Grumpy realist says:

    Indeed, I don’t remember anyone showing up at our college parties ever in blackface or a KKK hood and I graduated in 1982…

    …I can see a rich white brat thinking that this was “funny”.

    P.S. see you don’t need to post stupid stuff on Facebook to screw up your life!

  17. JohnMcC says:

    Had a nagging little neuron somewhere up there go on ‘alarm’ — Wasn’t there something that he did during his campaign? Thanks to Mr Google’s machine — yeah, there was a pamphlet his people distributed on the eastern shore (Virginia shares a border with Delaware) which is rural and presumably more likely to have racist voting patterns that had a photograph of his African-American running mate left out.

    Don’t know how that relates to the controversy, but my memory turned out to be spot-on! For an old guy, that’s not nothing. (humor-attempt-alert)

  18. Tyrell says:

    Let’s see, this is from almost forty years ago, and it happened when the man was a student in college. Is there a pattern of this kind of behavior? Has he repeated it? Is this incident an indicator of his character and actions? Who is this organization that dug this up and brought it out? What is their game here? Who in the world goes around looking at yearbooks from that long ago anyway? This sort of thing seems to happen more and more: some sort of long ago event happens to “emerge”.
    Who among us would survive scrutiny of things we did in school and college? The fraternity initiations? The toga parties? The bachelors night out? Halloween mischief? Those secret notes we wrote in grade school? The junior high locker room jokes and talk? The camping trip shenanigans? The under the bleachers stuff at the football games?
    How about all the presidents and members of Congress who were members of societies like the Skulls and their secret activities?
    If I was held accountable for some things I did back in school I would not be able to get a job scraping gum off of school desks.
    Harris, Castro, and some others are calling for this governor to resign. I think there is something else going on here and I would dare to venture most know what it is. It has happened before and will happen again.

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  19. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Tyrell:
    Many of us here were demanding to hang Kavanaugh for behavior in high school, granted that behavior was more egregious, so why should Northam get a pass? Dressing in blackface and in clan attire was considered racist behavior when I graduated from college in 1975, so Northam is particularly clueless.

    If we want our children to learn that racist, sexist and anti-semitic behavior won’t be tolerated, society can’t give a pass to contemporaries cause they were just kids.

    Sorry, not feeling very forgiving this morning.

  20. CSK says:

    Northam has called a press conference for today. It’s probably to announce his resignation.

  21. MarkedMan says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Many of us here were demanding to hang Kavanaugh for behavior in high school

    Speaking for myself, I never said that Kavanaugh’s behavior in high school was necessarily disqualifying. Rather it was his current day handling of those incidents, including his obvious lying to Congress.

    Im probably in the minority on the liberal side, but I believe that people should be judged on their entire history. And I believe that people can change. If Northam was my governor and has acted honestly and non-racially as a political leader and has not demonstrated racist tendencies in the past 15-20 years, then I am inclined to move on.

  22. dennis says:

    @Tyrell:

    Got me up in here agreeing with Tyrell. Well, a broken clock us right twice a day.

    Northam won’t survive this, and more’s the pity. Introspection, self-awareness, and a genuine move to a decent human being go a long way with me. I’m an 11-year convert to the Democratic platform, but the way they circle the wagon only to eat their own in a frenzy while wussing out when it comes to confronting Republican indignities just pisses me off.

  23. DrDaveT says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Speaking for myself, I never said that Kavanaugh’s behavior in high school was necessarily disqualifying. Rather it was his current day handling of those incidents, including his obvious lying to Congress.

    This. If we disqualify everyone who was occasionally an insensitive asshole as a youth, we eliminate a lot of qualified adults from the candidate pool. The problems with Kavanaugh are who he is today, which is informed by (but not determined by) who he was then, and the fact that what he (allegedly) did then goes way beyond tasteless racial jokes.

    I don’t know enough about Northam to know who he is today, but I’m guessing that his voting record doesn’t shout “klan fan”. Is that enough? Probably not, but I do see a lot of daylight between his case and Kavanaugh’s.

  24. dennis says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Agreed. Generally, who we were is not who we are, and who we are is not who we’ll be. Unless you’re an @$$hole. Dyed-in-the-wool @$$holes never change.

  25. James Pearce says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Many of us here were demanding to hang Kavanaugh for behavior in high school, granted that behavior was more egregious, so why should Northam get a pass?

    Rather than seeking to be consistent with the Kavanaugh response, 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.

    That photo is terrible. TERRIBLE. But it made it into the yearbook with no one –not the subjects, not the photographer, not the editor, not the publisher, not even the school– thinking “This is going to look really bad in 35 years.” It was a different time.

  26. Barry says:

    @James Pearce: ” It was a different time.”

    I’ve noticed the 180 degree switch on this from Erick Erickson, and now other GOP guys are following this lead.
    Methinks that they realize (1) Northam will resign and replaced in a heartbeat, with zero harm to the Democratic Party, and (2) most Republicans are far, far more guilty, and more recently guilty.

  27. CSK says:

    Okay, now it’s being reported that Northam refuses to resign and that he says it’s not him in the picture.

  28. Franklin says:

    I was in high school a little after this incident, and I was too clueless (a white boy in a small white town) to understand how bad blackface was. Certainly the white hood wouldn’t even be funny or acceptable … and in a yearbook, just wow.

  29. Slugger says:

    @James Pearce: The KKK was an evil organization since its first day. It used anonymity to cover terrorizing people with violence. That was its foundation from the beginning. By the 1980’s it had a century of history behind it. People in medical school are not naive children who can’t be expected to know history.

  30. James Pearce says:

    @Barry:

    I’ve noticed the 180 degree switch on this from Erick Erickson, and now other GOP guys are following this lead.

    Republicans want to get rid of him because they think he supports killing babies.

    Democrats want to get rid of him because they’re too devoted to their own performative morality to realize when they’re being goaded.

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  31. James Pearce says:

    @Slugger:

    The KKK was an evil organization since its first day.

    Look….I recognize this is going to open me up for charges of racism and what not. It is what it is.

    But Northam was never in the KKK. That photo is clearly from some kind of costume party, the context of which we don’t even know. Look at the beers in their hands!

    Is it offensive? Definitely. Even by 1984 standards, yes, it’s offensive.

    But what kind of idiot do you have to be, really, to flatten out bad taste costumes at a beer-soaked college party and race-based terror until they’re virtually indistinguishable?

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  32. Mikey says:

    @James Pearce:

    But what kind of idiot do you have to be, really, to flatten out bad taste costumes at a beer-soaked college party and race-based terror until they’re virtually indistinguishable?

    Nobody’s doing this, O Great and Magnificent Constructor of Obvious, Inane Strawmen.

  33. James Pearce says:

    @Mikey:

    Nobody’s doing this

    You sure about that?

    To wit:

    The racist photograph, which was obtained by CNN, that appears in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook shows one person dressed in blackface and another in the KKK’s signature white hood and robes.
    The photo was first reported by conservative website Big League Politics.

    You can’t even tell which of the two people in the photo are Northam, but you’re going to vouch for some shit that bubbled up from the Breitbartverse?

  34. Mikey says:

    @James Pearce: I’m pretty sure your reply to me has nothing to do with my reply to you regarding your strawman.

  35. James Pearce says:

    @Mikey: You’re right. I misunderstood you.

    Probably because you say “nobody is doing this” right after Slugger, well, did it. Depiction does not mean endorsement.

  36. The Q says:

    So when will the backlash against Obama come since he was a homophobe until Joe Biden convinced him to change his mind when as a 52 year old man he should have known better? I mean, after all, this 2012, not 1984.

    Was steadfastly being against gay marriage all your life as big a sin as a photo snapped in a moment 35 years ago in blackface?

    Will we take down MLK’s statue in DC since he also was against gay marriage? Is it impossible anymore to weigh a lifetime of behavior against a singular mistake in judgement?

    I guess only virgins and Rabbi ‘s (it used to be priests) should run for office.

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  37. MarkedMan says:

    Do social mores change? Some data: in the sixties there was a hit television comedy set in a Nazi POW camp. It was not unusual for beloved cartoon characters to appear dressed as Hitler for a gag, and Carol Burnett once had a sketch revolving around an old southern family that included a joke about how the grandfather had kept a slave in the attic up until the present day (couldn’t find a reference so I might have the wrong show). All of these were watched and laughed at by huge segments of the population. Including a much younger me (mostly in reruns).

  38. Mikey says:

    @James Pearce: Slugger didn’t do that either. Slugger pointed out that “it was a different time” is a shit excuse because even waaaaay back in 1984 (AKA the year I graduated from high school, so I’m old enough to remember), everyone had already known for decades that the KKK was a terrible racist organization.

    You twisted that into “flatten[ing] out bad taste costumes at a beer-soaked college party and race-based terror until they’re virtually indistinguishable.” And that is the that that nobody’s doing.

  39. James Pearce says:

    @Mikey:

    everyone had already known for decades that the KKK was a terrible racist organization.

    In the 1980s, the KKK was being played for laughs. Didn’t you ever see Porky’s II? It came out in 1983.

    And that is the that that nobody’s doing.

    Dude, half of this country are calling on him to resign because they think a 35 year old photograph of….someone…. is proof that he’s too racist to govern. So don’t tell me “nobody’s doing that.”

    Everybody’s doing it.

  40. Mikey says:

    @James Pearce: That’s not why they’re calling on him to resign. Like Reynolds says, “do the homework.” You quite obviously haven’t.

    Feh. I had forgotten how tiresome engaging with you is.

  41. James Pearce says:

    @Mikey:

    Feh. I had forgotten how tiresome engaging with you is.

    Nothing, Mikey, is more tiresome than being told you’re tiresome, so….same.