Ralph Northam yearbook blackface investigation is inconclusive


Virginia’s First Lady reportedly handed out cotton to African-American children on a tour of the governor’s mansion and asked them to think about what it was like being slaves. Veuer’s Justin Kircher has more.

The law firm handling an investigation into Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page that included a blackface photo said Wednesday that it was unable to determine whether the governor appeared in the picture.

The law firm of McGuireWoods conducted the independent probe on behalf of Eastern Virginia Medical School, reaching out to 1984 yearbook staff and alums of the school.

“We could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in that photograph,” said Richard Cullen, who led the investigation for McGuireWoods.

The report said no one interviewed could say whether the photo appeared on the page in error – and no one could say definitely whether Northam was or was not in the picture.

“The governor himself has made inconsistent statements in this regard,” Cullen said.

A muddled defense that included moonwalking and a Michael Jackson costume has thus far been sufficient for Northam to keep his job despite widespread calls for his resignation in the days following the discovery of the page four months ago.

Northam, a Democrat, at first apologized for being in the 1984 photo, which depicted one person in blackface standing next to someone wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. But he soon reversed direction, saying he didn’t believe he is in the photo and calling it “disgusting, offensive, racist.”

Related: Blackface, KKK hoods: Review of 900 yearbooks finds blatant racism

Richard Homan, president and provost of the school, said the investigation indicated that Northam initially did not think he was in the photo but was not certain. That indecision, he said, left Northam’s staff with a dilemma.

“They said ‘You can either deny it or apologize for it, those are your only two choices,'” Homan said. “He decided initially to go with apology as opposed to outright denial.”

Northam did admit to blackening his face with shoe polish for a Michael Jackson costume at a dance contest in the 1980s, although no photo from that incident has emerged. At that news conference in February, Northam appeared to consider displaying his moonwalking skills until his wife shut that down.

Virginia’s Constitution says elected officials who commit “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty or other high crime or misdemeanor” may be removed from office. Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, told USA TODAY, said there is no indication that Northam did anything “that satisfies those terms.”

Northam is not the only top official under fire in the state, though none have resigned or been removed from office. Days after the blackface photo emerged, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault, which he adamantly denies, stemming from a 2004 encounter. That drew call for his ouster. Then Attorney General Mark Herring admitted he, too, donned blackface in the 1980s. 

Earlier this year, the Republican-led Virginia Senate honored Robert E. Lee “as a great Virginian and a great American,” continuing a decades-long tradition. Some protested the move because of Lee’s ownership of slaves and leadership of the Confederate army.

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