After racist photo, pressure mounts on Virginia Governor Northam

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam met with his Cabinet on Monday amid a chorus of calls from fellow Democrats to resign over last week’s revelation of a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page.

Published by a far-right website on Friday, the racist photo of Northam shows a man draped in a Ku Klux Klan outfit standing next to a man wearing black face. 

Since the photo resurfaced on Friday, Northam has rebuffed widespread calls for his resignation. 

Northam initially apologised for appearing in the photo, but then said a day later that he was convinced he wasn’t in it.

Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said he has told Northam the state can’t afford a prolonged period of uncertainty over his future.

Earlier on Monday, the College of William & Mary and Northam’s office said on Monday he would no longer be attending an annual celebration of the school, adding that his presence would be disruptive. 

A few dozen protesters gathered at the state capitol on Monday in Richmond to demand Northam step down while the state’s lieutenant governor said there was “a lot of uncertainty” in the state’s government.

Northam’s initial admission drew immediate demands for Northam’s resignation from Virginia politicians, the NAACP civil rights group and national political figures.

At least five Democratic presidential candidates, including US Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, both of whom are black, said Northam had lost the moral authority to lead.

Northam’s office did not respond to questions about his plans on Monday but local media outlets reported he was meeting with advisers.

More allegations 

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who is black, said he was not sure what Northam’s next move would be.

“I believe the governor has to make a decision that’s in the best interest of the commonwealth of Virginia,” Fairfax told reporters at the capitol.

Asked if he was taking preparing for a possible elevation to governor, Fairfax replied, “There is a lot of uncertainty right now in our government. But we always have to be ready.”

Should Northam resign, Fairfax, 39, would be the second black governor in the history of Virginia, where his great-great-great grandfather once was a slave.

Protesters rallied over the weekend to demand Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s resignation [Jay Paul/Reuters]

Earlier on Monday Fairfax released a statement denying a vague online report that a woman suggested he had sexually assaulted her in 2004.

“Tellingly, not one other reputable media outlet has seen fit to air this false claim,” the statement from Fairfax’s office said.

At least two media outlets, including the Washington Post, said a woman had approached them more than a year ago with the same allegation. The outlets said they had been unable to substantiate her claim.

The report of the allegation was published on the same website, Big League Politics, that first published Northam’s yearbook page.

Northam said on Saturday he had donned blackface in the 1980s to portray pop star Michael Jackson in a dance competition.

During the Saturday news conference, Northam made light-hearted remarks about how hard it is to clean black shoe polish from one’s face and whether he should perform Jackson’s signature moonwalk dance moves before the cameras before accepting his wife’s advice not to.

“What happened Saturday was an unfortunate display, and rather tone-deaf to what the impact really is,” Derrick Johnson, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, told MSNBC on Monday.

Spate of blackface scandals 

Blackface controversies have brought down several politicians and commentators in recent years. 

Florida’s Republican secretary of state, Michael Ertel, resigned on January 24 after the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper published photos from a Halloween party 14 years earlier showing him in blackface wearing a T-shirt reading: “Katrina Victim”. 

The shirt’s text referenced the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005, disproportionately displacing and impacting communities of colour. 

Ertel apologised in a Facebook post on Sunday, according to media reports.

Television anchor Megyn Kelly left her NBC morning show, “Megyn Kelly Today”, in October after making on-air remarks defending blackface as part of Halloween costumes.

Kelly apologised the next day, but her show was canceled following her comments. 

And an Illinois mayor, Hal Patton of Edwardsville, was running for the state Senate in 2018 when the Belleville News-Democrat newspaper published a photo of him in blackface at a Halloween party a decade earlier.

Patton, who admitted in a statement to local media that the photo was of him dressed as a rapper, lost the race.

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