Embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) asked for forgiveness in a nationally televised interview Monday as he fights to stay in office in the wake of his admission that he wore blackface as a 25-year-old for a dance contest.
“The man you’re looking at and talking to right now is not who I was in my early 20s,” Northam said, citing his background as an Army medic and a pediatric neurologist. “I have learned. I admit to my mistakes. And I’m going to improve my life and do better and be in a position where I can help other people.”
Since the firestorm erupted over the revelation of a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page and his admissions that he darkened his face for a dance competition the same year, Northam told Gayle King of “CBS This Morning” that he’s been confronting his white privilege.
“I didn’t realize really the powerful implications of that,” said Northam. “And again, talking to a lot of friends that has come crystal clear to me this week. I have also learned why the use of blackface is so offensive and, yes, I knew it in the past. But reality has really set in.”
The interview, which follows Northam’s first post-scandal interview with The Washington Post, comes after the governor spent nearly a week in seclusion. Northam faces calls to resign from Democrats at home and in Washington, D.C., as well as from advocacy groups that supported his 2017 election and from about half of Virginians, according to a Post-Schar School poll.
But the governor insists he will stay in office and devote the rest of his term to racial equality in the Southern state.
The reconciliation tour hit a bump as Northam confronted fallout from excerpts of the CBS interview that aired over the weekend, in which he referred to the first Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 as “indentured servants.”
Some critics saw his comments as whitewashing the history of slavery, but the history is complex.
The terminology used to describe the first Africans who arrived on Virginia shores has been the subject of debate because they preceded formal slave laws and some may have had a path to freedom. Museums and government commissions often refer to 1619 as the arrival of the “first Africans” in Virginia. But there’s broad agreement that these Africans were captured and taken from their homes in Angola, transported on a slave ship and forced into labor.
“During a recent event at Fort Monroe, I spoke about the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia and referred to them in my remarks as enslaved,” Northam said in a Monday morning statement explaining his comments. “A historian advised me that the use of indentured was more historically accurate — the fact is, I’m still learning and committed to getting it right.”
Virginia’s political leadership has been embroiled in controversy this month with scandals swirling around top elected officials.
t. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), who would become governor if Northam resigns, is also under pressure to resign after two allegations of sexual assault. He says the encounters in 2000 and 2004 were consensual, and an attempt to start impeachment proceedings fizzled Monday morning.
Attorney General Mark Herring (D) admitted wearing blackface as a college student when he dressed as a rapper and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) acknowledged he was the editor of a 1968 yearbook that included racial slurs and blackface photos. Few have called for their resignations.
The controversies involving Fairfax and Herring have eased some of the pressure on Northam.
In Monday’s interview, King pressed Northam on the blackface incident, as well as on his shifting explanations for the photo of two people, one in blackface and another in KKK robes, on his medical school yearbook page. After initially taking responsibility for the photo, the next day Northam insisted he did not appear in the photo and said he didn’t know how it got on his yearbook page.
King asked Northam whether he owned the distinctive plaid pants worn by the person in blackface in the photo in his yearbook.
“I have never had any pants like that,” Northam said.
And she asked whether he was really about to do the moonwalk — as it appeared he was — when he was asked at a nationally televised news conference if he still had the dance moves that helped him win the 1984 competition where he darkened his face to perform as Michael Jackson.
“No, because I don’t have those at age 59, but I will tell you again, I regret that. This is a serious moment,” Northam said.
How did Northam know it was difficult to remove shoe polish — as he said in that same news conference — unless he had performed in blackface before?
“Folks need to know that I went to military school, military college, for four years. I polished my shoes almost every day,” said Northam. “And the shoe polish goes through that cloth. And it gets on your finger — or my finger. And it’s very difficult to remove. So that — that’s why I know shoe polish is difficult to remove.”