By HANNAH GALEONE
This week, UMW students and faculty have been reflecting on a photograph from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook. The photo went viral on Friday, Feb. 1, and quickly became a topic of conversation on campus.
The photo in question, which was published on the governor’s page in the 1984 edition of the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, shows two men, one wearing black-face and the other dressed in the all-white uniform of the Klu Klux Klan, posing next to one another and holding cans of beer.
The same day as the photo was released, Northam made a statement to the public, saying, “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.” A day later, however, he said that he “did not appear in the photo” but its presence in his school’s yearbook “didn’t surprise him.” He stated that “many actions that we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace [when the yearbook was published].”
“The [UMW] Young Democrats completely and without reservation condemn the racist actions of Governor Ralph Northam,” the campus political group said in a public Facebook post. “…You have broken the people’s trust and shown yourself unfit to hold office, [and] we call on you to resign your position as Governor.”
There was no post made on the Facebook page of the UMW College Republicans.
Northam has received calls for resignation at the federal, state and local levels. Currently, Northam has “no plans to resign” and is “evaluating the situation on a ‘minute by minute,’ ‘day by day’ basis,” according to CNN Politics.
“I don’t know whether or not he should resign because it was 35 years ago,” said political science major Alec Marshall. “I think there should be more of an apology on his part.”
“It’s very [expletive] up,” said psychology major Anthony Lanza. “It’s extremely racist regardless of the fact that it happened years ago. It might not represent his views but it’s definitely representing something horrible that he’s done.”
Faculty and staff have also expressed their reactions to Northam’s photograph and his statements that he will not be resigning.
“This is clearly a major problem for the governor,” said political science Professor Stephen Farnsworth. “Virtually every Democrat in Virginia has said he needs to go, and in the days since that photo first emerged there really hasn’t been any kind of reconsideration by the Democrats. So, the Governor’s position within his own party is very problematic.”
Farnsworth said that Northam’s decision to apologize for being in the photo on Friday and then deny his appearance in it on Saturday is a cause for concern.
“The way that the governor has handled this is a case study in how not to manage a crisis,” said Farnsworth. “If the governor was going to deny having anything to do with the picture, that’s the story he should have told the first day. [This has] really created a significant credibility problem for him.”
According to Farnsworth, Virginia’s demographic changes and attempts to move away from its racist history may result in a population less inclined to tolerate Northam’s past.
“It’s important to recognize that this may be the start of a pretty significant reconsideration of a lot of Virginia’s history,” said Farnsworth. “Virginia is in the process of redefining itself because there are so many different narratives about what Virginia is. Virginia has more people who were born out-of-state than were born in-state. The population that would be sympathetic to the traditional Virginia narratives isn’t as dominant as it once was.”
As the state government and Governor Northam take into account the potential for his resignation, UMW students have voiced their array of opinions on Northam’s actions and whether or not he should resign.
“I don’t think that it should be held against him for the purpose of resigning,” said marketing major Tucker Gorski.
Students have also commented on Northam’s appearance to the public and how the photograph will impact his reputation with the community.
“I think we should view him differently, but I don’t think we should be forcing him to resign for a mistake he made as a college student,” said Gorski.
“Whether he resigns or not, it will definitely have an effect on his public image,” said economics major Max Schultz.
As of this week, Governor Northam is still “clinging to his job” and has not addressed the numerous calls for his resignation from both of the political parties.
Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax has been accused of sexual assault. In a private meeting, he said of his accuser “f— that b—-”, according to NBC News. On Wednesday, Attorney General Mark Herring, third in the line of succession for Virginia’s governorship, admitted he too had worn blackface as a 19 year old college student in 1980.
“I think the odds are better than they were a few days ago that Gov. Northam will be able to stay in office,” Farnsworth said. “With all three statewide elected officials facing major scandals this week, the Democrats do not want them all to resign and turn power over to the Republican Speaker of the House.”
Republican Delegate Kirk Cox is next in line for governor after the lieutenant governor and attorney general.
“These developments have increased the chances that the Republicans will be able to retain their narrow majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia this year, as a party in meltdown – as the Democrats are right now – is hardly able to recruit top-tier candidates and excite the party’s donors,” said Farnsworth.