Northam Faces Fire for Racist Yearbook Photos


Photo by Maryam Khan

Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam gives his celebratory speech at George Mason after his election in 2017.

Written by Maryam Khan and River Stone

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam refuses to step down amid growing calls for his resignation, after a photo from his medical school yearbook depicting racist paraphernalia surfaced in early February.

The yearbook photo features a student in blackface standing next to a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe, and is pictured on a page featuring photos of Northam. However, the Democratic governor continues to deny allegations that he is the one pictured and remains adamantly opposed to resigning.

Blackface, the practice of covering one’s face to appear darker in skin tone, has become a controversial topic in recent years, as it was historically used in entertainment to mock African Americans and emphasize racial stereotypes. As a result, despite a public apology by Northam, the racist connotations associated with blackface run deep and many people are not so willing to let this slide.

Northam initially faced harsh criticism from both political parties, however in subsequent days following the discovery, many groups have voiced their support for the Governor. In a poll run by the Washington Post, 58% of Virginian African Americans think Northam should not step down.

As the buzz surrounding the situation settles, it seems unlikely that Northam will resign. However, if he chooses to step down, the order of succession is not so simple. As Northam’s scandal was uncovered, other top Virginia Officials’ pasts were brought under scrutiny. Next in line for governor after Northam is Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, but Fairfax may now be facing criminal charges for sexual assault.

Fairfax faces allegations from Dr. Vanessa Tyler and Ms. Meredith Watson, who claim he assaulted them years ago. Although Fairfax denies the claims, political leaders such as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe are asking for his resignation. In the eyes of the public, damage may have been
done without proving the claims. Hunter Hess, a member of University of Virginia’s Young Democrats club, is adamantly opposed to Fairfax remaining in office.

“A man who sexually assaulted two women should not have power over anything or anyone,” says Hess, “He should be in prison.” Scandals involving Virginia’s top officials continue to be uncovered. If Fairfax were to step down along with Northam, next in line for governor would be Attorney General Mark Herring— who recently admitted to wearing blackface in 1980 at an undergraduate party.

However, some believe that the best way to better the country is to move on from the past and learn from it.

“I’m in no way condoning blackface or outward abuse and white privilege, but many of America’s leaders who have made improvements for civil rights were racist,” says Woodgrove High School Young Democrats leader Julia Condie. “I’m ready to move on and make progress.”

Despite the circumstances, Former Virginia congressional intern and Woodgrove alumni Zan Guendert believes that something good may come from this. Regardless of what happens, it is likely that Northam will learn from his past mistakes.

“If the Governor continues to remain in office, I believe he understands his past actions will not be forgotten, but will be the focus of efforts to press the Governor to make tangible changes in Virginia,” says Guendert.

Although the current state of political bipartisanship seems bleak, “Richmond’s members of the general assembly and executive staff, even those across the aisle, are often closer than most people would think,” says Guendert, “The activism and support shown to and from the African American community and from fellow Virginians gives me hope for Virginia’s future.”