Virginia Governor Ralph Northam held a press conference Saturday to apologize for the racist photo that appeared on his tribute page in his medical school yearbook, while at the same time saying he is neither the man wearing blackface nor the man in the Ku Klux Klan hood in the image. Northam also claimed he was not aware of the photo’s existence before Friday. Despite speculation and calls for him to step down after initially admitting it was him in the image, Northam refused to resign.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam stands by his apology over the racist photo in his medical school yearbook but believes "I am not either of the people in that photo." pic.twitter.com/8TLhNcbPgE
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) February 2, 2019
It was a familiar scene we’ve witnessed many times before —a shame-faced politician, his wife by his side, issuing an apology. But the content was surreal. While denying he was the one wearing blackface in the yearbook image, Northam recalled another instance when he did don blackface by darkening his skin with shoe polish as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a talent show. It’s a mind-boggling defense: I did not do that blackface, I did this other blackface, which was fine because there’s not a photo of it.
“I actually won the contest because I had learned to do the moonwalk,” Northam later added. His wife then appeared to stop him from actually demonstrating his moonwalk when a reporter later asked him if he could. “Inappropriate circumstances,” she said when Northam seemed about to do it. This just further reinforced that Northam, even today, does not understand the gravity of his past actions.
He was really going to moonwalk, wasn't he? pic.twitter.com/ZbOa1IhS4R
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) February 2, 2019
Another reporter asked why Northam had the nickname “Coonman” underneath his photo in his undergraduate yearbook. Northam minimized the offense, saying there were two older students who called him that but he did not know their motives for doing so. “I don’t know what their intent was with that,” he said. It was a Kavanaugh-esque denial, evocative of the Supreme Court nominee alleging “Devil’s triangle” was a drinking game and declaring himself “Renate alumnus” was a compliment to a woman he dated. It was beyond comprehension.
Northam did leave the door open to resigning later, but said he will have discussions with Democratic and Republican caucuses about his ability to lead. Many politicians, including presidential candidates, a former vice president, and former Virginia governor have called on Northam to step down.
“It was a talent show, I didn’t find it personally as unacceptable at that time. I have learned since… The [other picture] is just horrific, it’s totally offensive. I find both of them to be wrong. I wasn’t responsible for the first one, I take responsibility for the issue in San Antonio.”
It’s an odd differentiation to make, and one that likely will not go over well. Blackface is blackface, regardless of what Northam says.