On February 1st, the right-wing website Big League Politics leaked a picture of two men at a party, one wearing blackface and the other sporting a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. The picture was on Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 medical school yearbook. Shortly after the picture surfaced, Northam admitted and apologized for his apparent involvement. Notable Democrats including Virginia senators Mark Warren and Tim Kaine, along with former governor Terry McAuliffe and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus called for his resignation in light of the photo. However privately, Northam began to doubt whether or not it was actually him in the photo. On February 2nd he held a press conference where he denied that he was either man in the photo, but admitted on one occasion to “darkening his face” with shoe polish to portray Michael Jackson. His press conference was widely criticized for its odd characteristics and levity.
“There was one point where a reporter asked him if he could still moonwalk, to which he answered something to the manner of ‘of course,’ and attempted to start,” said Virginia native and History teacher John Monahan. “His wife actually had to whisper to him ‘inappropriate circumstances’ to get him to stop. It was a very strange dynamic.”
CBS News later unearthed the yearbook and discovered that one of Northam’s nicknames was “coonman,” a racial slur that dates back to slavery.
According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, blackface originated from minstrel shows in the early 1800s, where white Americans would wear tattered clothing and darken their face using shoe polish to stereotypically display Africans enslaved in the United States.
“[Blackface] cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core,” said the museum. “[They distorted] the features and culture of African Americans — including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character.”
The historical context behind Blackface has been widely known and understood.
“I think Governor Northam should resign because not only does a digression of this kind reflect poorly on core values of the Democratic Party but reflect poorly on the nation as a whole,” said junior and President of Circle of Women Payton Selby. “If their constituents are calling for him to resign, he should resign.”
Should Northam resign, the next in line would be the Justin Fairfax, the 40 year-old African-American lieutenant governor who was considered a rising star within the Democratic Party. This seemed to be the perfect solution, until Big League Politics released sexual assault allegations from Vanessa Tyson, a professor at Scripps College. Tyson alleges that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex at a hotel following the 2004 Democratic Convention.
On February 8th, another accuser, Meredith Watson accused Fairfax of raping her in 2000 while they were both students at Duke University. Watson also accused former NBA and Duke star Corey Maggette of a similar crime.
Fairfax vehemently denied these claims, calling them a smear campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. He called for an investigation into the allegations.
Many liberal groups, such as the National Organization of Women called for Fairfax’s resignation, while some NAACP leaders questioned the calls for resignation and expressed their desire for due process.
““The way I see it, Fairfax should not resign until there is an investigation or trial that that can conclusively deem him guilty,” said Selby. “To ask for him to resign without conclusive reporting contradicts the foundation of the American system, which is that people are innocent until proven guilty.”
Senior Gehna Chaubal echoed a similar statement, emphasizing the need for a investigation.
“They should investigate the allegations more and if they are true then he needs to face consequences in some way,” said Chaubal. “Morality is more important than party.”
Virginia Republicans are claiming that Democrats are blocking an investigation into Fairfax, while Democrats say the Republicans are just putting on a political show. The allegations against Lieutenant Governor Fairfax are part of a larger “Me Too” movement aimed at exposing sexual assault in the workplace.
“The Me Too movement kind of peaked in the public consciousness around Harvey Weinstein, but it’s not going to stop there,” said Monahan. “Some of these are behaviours that wouldn’t have seemed that bad 20 years ago, that we don’t want to tolerate now. It’s ultimately up to the voters whether or not they want to tolerate this.”
A survey from Quinnipiac University says that Virginia residents are split over whether or not Fairfax should resign, but a poll from the University of Virginia says that 35 percent of people think Fairfax should resign, opposed to 25 percent of people who believe he should stay.
The third in the line of succession is Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, who on February 7th admitted to also wearing blackface at a party in the 1980s. The depth and severity of these scandals has shocked many people.
““There’s never been a statewide scandal as big as this in Virginia’s history,” said Monahan. “If Virginia Democrats are unable to distance themselves from Northam’s brand, I certainly think this could negatively impact their legislative success.”
After Herring, the next in line would be the William Howell, the Republican Speaker of the House. Northam would be up for reelection in 2022.
This has been widely characterized as a massive blunder by Republican opposition researchers, one that will likely inspire change.
“Yearbooks are definitely going to be some of the first things that opposition researchers look through in people’s backgrounds. Yearbooks are apart of the equation now, and so are adjacent things such as people’s social media backgrounds,” said Monahan. “The ocean of information out there about us could have unintended repercussions. A screenshot could be the difference between winning and losing an election.”
As of publication, none of them have resigned.