Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday that he had appeared in a “clearly racist and offensive” costume in a photograph in his medical school yearbook. The image, first published by the conservative news site Big League Politics, featured a man in blackface standing next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe.
Northam released a statement Friday evening confirming he is one of the men in the photo—though not specifying which of the men—and apologizing for “for the hurt that decision caused then and now.” (His full statement is at the bottom of this story.)
Northam graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1984 and formerly worked as a pediatric neurologist. Other photos on his yearbook page showed Northam in a suit and sitting in front of a Corvette. There is also a quote on the page that reads, “There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.” Both individuals in the racist photo look to be holding cans of beer.
Before Northam’s statement, the Republican Party of Virginia had called on him to resign if he was one of the two men in the image. If Northam did resign, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would take his place.
Virginia’s Senate Democratic Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw defended Northam on Friday. “His whole life has been about exactly the opposite and that’s what you need to examine, not something that occurred 30 years ago,” Saslaw told the Post. “While it’s in very poor taste, I would think there is probably no one in the General Assembly who would like their college conduct examined. I would hate to have to go back and examine my two years in the Army. Trust me. I was 18 years old and I was a handful, OK? His life since then has been anything but. It’s been a life of helping people, and many times for free.”
Northam won the governorship in 2017, handily defeating Republican Ed Gillespie. Northam previously served as a state senator and lieutenant governor in Virginia. According to the Washington Post, Northam was keen on visiting black churches during his gubernatorial run, often attending two or three services every Sunday. He also was one of the first Virginia officials to call for the removal of Confederate monuments after the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. He later backtracked on that stance, contending that localities should make such decisions for themselves.
The governor has been embroiled in a separate controversy this week regarding a bill before the state assembly that would have reduced the number of doctors needed to sign off on third-trimester abortions from three to one. His opponents raised an uproar over comments he made on a radio show about at-risk fetuses: “The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
Update, 6:30 p.m.: This story was updated after Northam released the following statement.
Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive.
I am 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. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service.
But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment. I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor.
Correction, Feb. 5, 2019: This post originally misattributed the picture of Northam to a photographer at Getty. It was taken by Aaron Bernstein at Reuters.