Northam’s blackface scandal was ‘perfect storm,’ expert says

Posted at 7:37 PM, Jan 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-31 21:51:33-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- February 2019 marked the start of a volatile year in Virginia politics when a racist photo linked to Governor Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook page surfaced.

Northam initially confirmed he was one of the people in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photo and apologized.

Northam's 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.

Northam's 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.

He reversed course later saying he did not believe he was pictured after all, but revealing he once darken his face to resemble Michael Jackson during a 1984 dance competition.

He also vowed to stay in office and help the state heal despite calls for his resignation at the time.

Dr. Clarence Thomas, a media professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, led a panel on blackface and racism weeks after the photo surfaced. Thomas also serves as chair of the Robertson School Diversity Committee.

Dr. Clarence Thomas

Dr. Clarence Thomas

"I think [Northam] definitely got away with it," Thomas said. "I don’t know if it was him [in blackface] or not him, but the evidence does tend to look like it was him. I don’t think he proved one way or another that it was him as well."

Thomas described the months following the blackface photo as the perfect storm.

"It was an issue that was big enough for him to be removed, but once again Virginia had a perfect storm in terms of leadership. It just couldn’t happen," he explained.

Northam has vowed he would focus on racial reconciliation and racial equity for the remainder of his term.

"Sure we are upset with him, but at a practical standpoint we have to have government," Thomas stated. "Northam, I think, is trying to prove extra hard that he’s a good man and a good person."

Northam appoints Dr. Janice Underwood (left) as Virginia's first Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Northam appoints Dr. Janice Underwood (left) as Virginia's first Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

In September, Northam appointed Dr. Janice Underwood as the state's first Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The position marked the nation's first cabinet level position.

"I just to be honest with you we were all taken aback of the events of last February 2019," Underwood said.

Underwood has worked with Northam on an historic justice and equity agenda. The position is often referred to as Chief Diversity Officer.

She cited their work in the General Assembly to remove racist or discriminatory language from state code.

"I've seen the administration do the work and I've seen the governor to do the work," Underwood explained.

Northam also backed a bill to provide money to maintain these neglected and historic African American cemeteries, among other issues.

Many political experts thought the scandal would change the court of Virginia politics. But the Democrats have since taken control of both the House and Senate.

"Regardless if he's doing it to save face or not, some good things are happening in Virginia government today," Thomas said.

An independent investigation into the photo could not "conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in the photograph."

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