Amid calls for his resignation over a racist yearbook photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) revealed his intention to finish out the rest of his term by focusing on racial equality, he told The Washington Post in an interview published Saturday.
Northam said he believes the “horrific” scandal has better positioned him to address critical social issues, even while the state’s black lawmakers continue pressing him to resign.
“It’s obvious from what happened this week that we still have a lot of work to do. There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity,” he told the Post.
The embattled governor, who is one year into his four-year term, affirmed to staffers on Friday that he would not resign. In what has become a chaotic moment for Virginia Democrats, two other top officials are also ensnared in scandals of their own.
“There are ongoing inequities to access to things like education, health care, mortgages, capital, entrepreneurship,” Northam told the Post. “And so this has been a real, I think, an awakening for Virginia. It has really raised the level of awareness for racial issues in Virginia. And so we’re ready to learn from our mistakes.”
Northam said he has begun reading up on racial issues, starting with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerful Atlantic magazine piece “The Case for Reparations” and Roots by Alex Haley.
Northam has been under fire since his page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook surfaced on Feb. 1, showing a person in blackface standing next to a person dressed in a white Ku Klux Klan robe. Although the costumes obscure the individuals’ identities, the image appears in a spread of photos all depicting Northam.
Northam told the Post that the medical school has launched an “independent investigation” into the yearbook page.
The governor initially said he was “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.” But soon afterward he reversed course, saying he did not believe it was actually him in the photo because he has a “clear memory” of “other mistakes” he made around the same time. As an example, Northam admitted to wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume in the mid-1980s.
“I didn’t realize at the time that it was as offensive as I have since learned,” he said of the costume.
CBS News uncovered another alarming tidbit from Northam’s past in his 1981 yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute, which lists one of his nicknames as “Coonman” ― a reference to a slur for black people.
The governor’s troubles prompted Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring to announce that he, too, once donned blackface in his younger years. Herring, another Democrat, is second in line for Northam’s job.
First in line for the governorship after Northam is Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), who has now been accused of sexual assault by two women. Scores of Democrats have now called on Fairfax to resign.