News & Politics

Review of Ralph Northam's KKK-Blackface Photo Finds 'No Evidence' It Was Placed In Error

Review of Ralph Northam's KKK-Blackface Photo Finds 'No Evidence' It Was Placed In Error
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gestures as his wife, Pam, listens during a news conference in the Governors Mansion at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

On Wednesday, Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) released the results of an independent investigation into the controversial photo that appeared on now-Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-Va.) page in the 1984 yearbook. The photo showed two men, one in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan hood. Northam has apologized for the photo and also claimed he had no recollection of it. According to EVMS, the investigation found “no evidence” of a mistake in the photo being on his page, but it also could not identify the men in the photo.

The report found no one ‘with first-hand knowledge of an actual mistake on any page, including any personal page, within the 1984 yearbook’ and no evidence that the photo was placed in error,” EVMS reported in a press release. “The report also identified 10 photographs depicting individuals in blackface based on the law firm’s review of all EVMS yearbooks.

Within 48 hours of the offensive photo appearing online on February 1, EVMS hired the McGuireWoods law firm to conduct the investigation.

“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 McGuireWoods report states.

“We reviewed the contents of the yearbooks in detail. We have identified a number of photographs depicting blackface in the yearbooks, including the Photograph depicting blackface and an individual in KKK robes in the 1984 yearbook,” the report explains. “The yearbooks repeatedly contained other content that could be offensive to women, minorities, certain ethnic groups, and others. These issues or themes recurred over much of the time period in which the yearbooks were published, although with less frequency in the later years of the yearbooks’ publication.”

“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 report admits. “The Governor himself has made inconsistent public statements in this regard.”

Strangely, the law firm was unable to find anyone who would say from personal knowledge whether or not Northam was in the photograph. “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,” the report states.

Northam did indeed make conflicting statements. On February 1, he said, “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.” He later insisted that “this is the first time I have really seen that picture.”

Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel called for Northam’s immediate resignation.

“You know how we know Ralph Northam appeared in racist yearbook photos? He admitted it after they were exposed,” McDaniel tweeted. “Between that and his radical views on abortion, Northam has totally disgraced himself. He should have resigned then, and he should resign now.”

Yet some flippantly defended the governor, claiming that by President Donald Trump’s rules in the Robert Mueller investigation into Trump-Russia collusion, Northam had been “TOTALLY VINDICATED.”

“So if I have this right, the rules say Northam has been TOTALLY VINDICATED and we can start mocking anybody who thinks he was probably in that photo as a conspiracy nut,” New York Magazine‘s Jonathan Chait tweeted.

The comparison to Trump and the Mueller report is a ridiculous red herring. Mueller did not find evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, and instead decided to lay out an argument for potential obstruction of justice, a completely separate charge. Trump claims to have been “TOTALLY VINDICATED” because he was vindicated on the collusion issue. The obstruction debate is immaterial to this claim.

The EVMS report found ten instances of blackface in old yearbooks, and Richard V. Homan, M.D., president and provost of EVMS and dean of the School of Medicine, pledged to dedicate his institution to reform.

“To maintain the public’s trust and ensure an independent and objective assessment of the past,” Dr. Homan said, “we knew we needed outside assistance.”

“We thank EVMS for its cooperation and responsiveness during the investigation,” said Richard Cullen, who led the investigation. “EVMS ensured McGuireWoods had unfettered access to EVMS documents and members of the EVMS community. At no time was our inquiry restricted by EVMS, and the findings and conclusions contained in the report are our own.”

Dr. Homan said the publication of the photos was a “failure of administrative oversight on the part of EVMS. Their publication was hurtful, particularly to the African-American community and to our campus community. It should never have happened.”

“Unless we face this fact head on, this bias and racism will not abate,” Dr. Homan said. “Uncomfortable silence only perpetuates these problems. We must engage in direct conversations, even if they are uncomfortable, even if they are difficult. Notwithstanding, talking is not enough.”

The report also delved into EVMS’s culture and found clear efforts that the medical school has prioritized inclusion.

It seems EVMS is largely in the clear after this incident. As for Northam, that remains to be seen.

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.