US governor Ralph Northam refuses to resign after racist photograph surfaces

Democrat claims he was not in picture a day after apologising for the hurt it caused

Virginia governor Ralph Northam was on Sunday resisting calls to resign despite widespread outcry after racist photographs surfaced from his student days.

Mr Northam’s page in his medical school’s yearbook from 1984 when he was a student at Eastern Virginia Medical School includes various photos of the Democratic politician. In one picture two men stand side by side – one dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the other in “blackface”, a widely scorned practice whereby white people impersonated black people.

Within hours of the first report of the yearbook picture surfacing on the website Big League Politics on Friday, Mr Northam had issued a statement.

Stating that the photograph contained a picture of him when he was a medical student in a costume that is “clearly racist and offensive”, he said he was “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 behaviour 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,” he continued.

Remarkable development

But in a remarkable development, the governor held a press conference on Saturday and claimed he was not in fact either of the people in the picture. “I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo,” he said.

“This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam.” He went on to say that he had once darkened his face with shoe-polish during a Michael Jackson impersonation at an event in San Antonio in 1984.

The emergence of the photograph led to widespread condemnation, including from senior figures within the Democratic Party – even after Mr Northam claimed that he was not either of the two men in the photo.

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, a close ally of Mr Northam who helped him with the gubernatorial race in 2017, said that he should resign, despite claiming that he was not in the photo. “It doesn’t matter whether he was in the photo, or not in the photo at this point,” he said. “We have to close that chapter.”

Other senior figures from the party lined up to call for his resignation.

“There is no place for racism in America,” former vice president Joe Biden said. “Governor Northam has lost all moral authority and should resign immediately, Justin Fairfax is the leader Virginia needs now,” he added, referring to Justin Fairfax, the African-American lieutenant governor of the state who would take over if Mr Northam resigns.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi called on Mr Northam to resign.

Deepening crisis

“The photo is racist and contrary to fundamental American values,” she said. “I join my colleagues in Virginia calling on governor Northam to do the right thing so that the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia can heal and move forward.”

The deepening crisis surrounding Mr Northam has particular resonance in Virginia, a state with a long history of racial segregation.

The emergence of the photos came at the end of a difficult week for the governor who became embroiled in controversy over a new law in Virginia allowing third-trimester abortions.

US president Donald Trump, who has himself faced accusations of racism from many Democrats, addressed the controversy on Twitter from Florida where he spent the weekend.

He said: “Democrat Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia just stated, ‘I believe that I am not either of the people in that photo.’

“This was 24 hours after apologizing for appearing in the picture and after making the most horrible statement on “super” late term abortion. Unforgivable!”

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent