Ralph Northam Blackface Investigation Ends With a Whimper

Illustration for article titled Ralph Northam Blackface Investigation Ends With a Whimper

Remember several years ago back in February, when it was discovered that the 1984 medical school yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam contained a photo depicting two people wearing blackface and Klu Klux Klan robes? And remember how Northam apologized for being in the photo, then said he wasn’t in the photo, then admitted to using blackface to dress up as Michael Jackson once, and then just kept being governor like nothing ever happened?

Well, we still have absolutely no clue who’s in the photo, or if either of the people in the offensive costumes are Northam, despite the photo being printed on his specific yearbook page. More than three months after the Eastern Virginia Medical School commissioned an investigation, the school released the report on Wednesday morning. The report said that it could “not conclusively determine the identity of either individual” in the photograph.

From the report:

With respect to the Photograph on Governor Northam’s personal page, we could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in the Photograph. The Governor himself has made inconsistent public statements in this regard. No individual that we interviewed has told us from personal knowledge that the Governor is in the Photograph, and no individual with knowledge has come forward to us to report that the Governor is in the Photograph. In light of the Governor’s statements on February 2, 2019 that he had not seen the Photograph before, we sought to determine whether there is information that the Photograph was placed on his personal page in error or by any other means not at his direction. Our inquiry in this regard was restricted by the passage of time and the dearth of contemporaneous documentation. While we have identified no information that the Photograph was placed on Governor Northam’s personal page in error or by any other means not at his direction, we could not conclusively determine the origin of the Photograph. 


The report states that the investigation, conducted by law firm McGuireWoods, involved the firm contacting more than 80 former and current students from graduating classes of 1983 through 2021, resulting in 30 interviews, as well as 15 interviews with current and former faculty, administration, and staff. (Northam graduated from the school in 1984.)

We’ve reached out to Northam’s office for comment, and will update with any response we receive.


Amid calls for Northam to resign in February, the two elected officials next in line to take Northam’s seat also became marred in scandal. Two women separately accused Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of rape, and last month, they shared their stories on CBS This Morning. Fairfax has maintained that he never assaulted either woman, claiming that both encounters were consensual, and has called upon prosecutors in Boston and Durham, NC, to investigate the women’s claims. Days after the Northam scandal and the Fairfax allegations broke, Virginia attorney general Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface to dress up as legendary rapper Kurtis Blow when he was 19.

After the blackface scandal, Northam refused to resign and instead planned a “reconciliation tour” to repair his relationship with the black community, of which the first stop was canceled. Polling in April also showed that while a majority of Virginia voters favor Northam staying in office, his approval rating had plummeted nearly 20 points in the months since the scandal, down to just 40 percent.


Update, 5/23/19, 11:20 a.m. ET: On Tuesday afternoon, Northam released a statement:

I have cooperated with Richard Cullen and his team over the course of their investigation, both by making myself available for interviews and by turning over the findings of my private inquiry into the matter. I am not in the racist and offensive photo that appears under my name in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.

That being said, I know and understand the events of early February and my response to them have caused hurt for many Virginians and for that, I am sorry. I felt it was important to take accountability for the photo’s presence on my page, but rather than providing clarity, I instead deepened pain and confusion.

In visits with local leaders across the Commonwealth, I have engaged in frank and necessary dialogue on how I can best utilize the power of the governor’s office to enact meaningful progress on issues of equity and better focus our administration’s efforts for the remainder of my term. That conversation will continue, with ensuing action, and I am committed to working to build a better and more equitable Virginia for all who call it home.

Splinter Staff Writer, Texan

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