Blackface photo is a reminder of Virginia’s racist history
By DENISE LAVOIE
Thursday, February 7
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The discovery last week of a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page has served as a glaring reminder that Virginia — a former bastion of slavery and white supremacy— continues to struggle with mindsets shaped by its turbulent racial history.
Even as Virginia has grown more socially liberal in recent decades, evidence that its racist tradition is not yet a thing of the past is everywhere. Statues of Confederate leaders remain the defining feature of Richmond’s Monument Avenue and the state legislature still honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson every year.
“When Virginia voted for Barack Obama in 2008, there was talk that Virginia was now moving into a new era. In actuality, Virginia faked left and went right,” said Gary Flowers, a Richmond native who is the former CEO of the Black Leadership Forum.
“This is a 400-year mode that’s going to take some time, but there has to be a radical restructuring of values,” Flowers said.
While there is much ugliness to overcome, the commonwealth’s history is a complex one that has been marked by contrasts.
Virginia was the birthplace of American democracy, but also of enslavement; Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, but also the home of Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor. A statue of black tennis champion Arthur Ashe sits on Monument Avenue alongside those of the Confederate Generals.
This year, Virginia will mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival in Jamestown of the first Africans to be sold as slaves in North America. Richmond’s now trendy Shockoe Bottom neighborhood was the site of one of the largest slave trades in the country.
A major blot on the state’s history is its “Massive Resistance,” when Virginia’s governor in the late 1950s closed its public schools rather than heed the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to integrate them.
Northam’s yearbook photo showing someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe has been but the latest reminder of the state’s hateful past.
The picture sparked outrage and widespread calls for his resignation, including condemnation from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. But the scandal escalated Wednesday, when Herring too was forced to acknowledge that he had put on blackface in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party as a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.
These were not isolated incidents.
A separate photo found in a 1983 UVA yearbook shows an unidentified student dressed up for a Halloween party wearing a blackface mask, a white hooded sheet and a noose around his neck, conjuring up an image of black lynchings.
As recently as 2013 or 2014, students who attended Eastern Virginia Medical School — the same one as Northam — were still posing in Confederate garb for the yearbook.
Virginia, the state with the largest number of Confederate monuments, statues and symbols in the nation, still hasn’t come up with a firm plan to respond to years of calls from the black community to remove them. In 2017, Charlottesville became a symbol of racial turmoil after a woman was killed when white nationalists from around the country rallied and rioted to protest the removal of a statue of Lee.
A year later, Republican Corey Stewart campaigned for U.S. Senate by openly embracing Confederate monuments. He won the Republican nomination and garnered 41 percent of the vote in the general election, which he lost to incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.
Christy Coleman, the chief executive officer of the American Civil War Museum, said Virginia struggles with its history but she also sees progress, citing the work of a coalition trying to address the state’s high eviction rates, which disproportionately affect minority communities.
“What you’re seeing is sort of this rippling effect, this progress that you talk about is absolutely present, but because we haven’t fully reconciled our history, we have these things that bubble up,” she said.
Historians say attitudes began to slowly change in Virginia by the late 1960s, pushed by civil rights laws mandating desegregation and other social forces.
But deep into the 1960s it was still illegal for Virginians classified as “colored” to marry those classified as “white.” The 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case striking down such laws was brought by a Virginia couple sentenced to a year in prison.
In 1989, Wilder’s election was hailed as a defining moment in the state’s evolution on racial issues. The state’s vote for Obama in 2008 was also seen as a step toward progressiveness.
Shawn Utsey, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the black community feels betrayed by Northam because his talk of equality and inclusion during the 2017 election was seen as a welcome contrast to the racially divisive rhetoric of President Donald Trump.
“We had our hopes high and we had the wind knocked out of us,” he said.
Centuries of history are hard to escape, said Karen Sherry, a curator at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture who is working on an exhibit on the struggle of black people in Virginia.
“While Virginia’s demographics and politics have been evolving in recent years, social change and change in people’s attitudes is often very slow in coming,” Sherry said.
Blackface photo reopens long history of bigotry in medicine
By DEEPTI HAJELA
Thursday, February 7
NEW YORK (AP) — The racist photo on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page wasn’t the only thing that disgusted Monifa Bandele. She was especially appalled that the image was published as he was graduating from medical school on his way to becoming a pediatrician.
The 1984 photo has stirred a national political furor and reopened the long history of bigotry in American medicine. The revelations about Northam gave many African-Americans a new reason to be distrustful of doctors.
“If you devalue black people, that’s going to impact how you treat black people,” said Bandele, senior vice president at Moms Rising, an advocacy group where she works on reproductive health issues, including maternal mortality. “And not just him, all of the medical professionals connected to the school, to the yearbook … basically, your slip is showing. If you felt that black people were equal to white people in any way, shape or form, you would not think that this was OK.”
The photo surfaced from the pages of the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. The image showed one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. The Democratic governor denied that he’s in the photo but acknowledged wearing blackface on a separate occasion.
A diverse group of families whose children Northam treated as a pediatric neurologist supported his gubernatorial campaign, praising his determination to improve patients’ lives. He worships at a predominantly black church, and nine of his medical school classmates signed a statement saying they don’t believe he’s “ever engaged in, promoted, tolerated or condoned racism.”
But that’s just why some find the blackface photo so pernicious: After all, if even a doctor with such a long career in service to others had this on his yearbook page, what does that do to people’s ability to trust?
The history of race and medicine includes an experiment conducted in Jim Crow-era Alabama, where hundreds of black men with syphilis were left untreated for decades so government researchers could track the disease’s progress in what came to be called the “Tuskegee syphilis study.”
Other stark examples include Dr. J. Marion Sims, a physician in the 1800s who used enslaved African-American women as his medical subjects, operating on them without anesthesia as he developed a gynecological technique.
African-Americans have long complained of being ignored by doctors and having their concerns downplayed. Several studies over the years have documented bias in medicine, including research showing that white doctors sometimes think black patients are less likely to feel pain.
In one high-profile case, tennis star Serena Williams wrote in January 2018 that following the birth of her daughter, she had to push medical professionals to test her to diagnose what turned out to be blood clots in her lungs. Black women are much more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related issues, and many black women pointed to Williams’ example as emblematic of a larger problem.
Erika Stallings, a black woman living in Harlem, cited her own experience following a 2014 mastectomy and those of many other people she’s talked to in her work as a freelance writer covering racial bias in health care.
“It’s so widespread to the point … it’s like going to war to go to the doctor’s office. They wear their best clothes. They mention how many degrees they have. They make sure other people come to the doctor’s office with them so they have an advocate,” she said.
The Northam story gave Lillie Head Tyson a new reason to be skeptical. Not that she needed one.
Tyson, a black Virginia woman who voted for Northam, is the daughter of the late Freddie Lee Tyson, who was part of the Tuskegee experiment. The study was publicly revealed in 1972, only 12 years before the yearbook photo was published. The timing wasn’t lost on Tyson.
“It’s not anything that we haven’t heard before, but it is still shocking. You wonder how deep this really goes,” she said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
Keith Brown, a network engineer in Lexington, Kentucky, has organized health fairs to encourage black men to take care of themselves, knowing that many are reluctant to see doctors in part because of the past. Among older people, Tuskegee was seen as a reason not to go.
The Northam story sowed similar doubts. Brown said he would avoid doctors with any racist behavior in their past “because it makes you wonder if they’re still a racist and what kind of treatment would they provide you.”
Sylvia Perry, an assistant professor of social psychology at Northwestern University who focuses on prejudice and health disparities in medicine, said the Northam photo reinforces the concerns of people who have suspicions about doctors and racial bias.
“It’s like they can finally put a name to a face — literally — and say: ‘This is an example. This is exactly what I’m talking about,’” she said.
Associated Press writer Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, and video producer Noreen Nasir in Chicago contributed to this report.
Deepti Hajela covers issues of race, ethnicity and immigration for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/dhajela . For more of her work, search for her name at https://apnews.com .
Virginia looks to Black Caucus for cues in political turmoil
By ALAN SUDERMAN
Thursday, February 7
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — With Virginia’s top three elected officials engulfed in scandal, fellow Democrats were rendered practically speechless, uncertain of how to thread their way through the racial and sexual allegations and the tangled political implications.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s career was already teetering over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook when the crisis seemed to spiral completely out of control Wednesday. First, the state’s attorney general acknowledged that he, too, put on blackface once, when he was a college student. Then a woman publicly accused the lieutenant governor of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago.
Everyone in Richmond, it seemed, was waiting Thursday for Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus to respond. The caucus has been calling for Northam’s resignation over the past week but was silent about the latest developments.
“We’ve got a lot to digest,” the group’s chairman, Del. Lamont Bagby, said Wednesday.
The crisis threatens to bring down all three of the politicians, all of them Democrats. If Northam resigns, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax stands to become Virginia’s second black governor. Attorney General Mark Herring is next in the line of succession, followed by House Speaker Kirk Cox, a conservative Republican.
Herring, who had been urging Northam to step down and was planning to run for governor in 2021, admitted wearing brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.
He apologized for his “callous” behavior and said the days ahead “will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve.” The 57-year-old Herring came forward with his statement after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol. But he made no mention of any photo.
Then Vanessa Tyson, whose sexual assault allegations against Fairfax surfaced earlier this week, put out a detailed statement saying he forced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The Associated Press typically does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted, but the 42-year-old college professor from California issued the statement in her name.
Fairfax has repeatedly denied her allegations, saying that the encounter was consensual and that he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear.
At the Capitol, lawmakers were dumbstruck over Wednesday’s fast-moving developments, with Democratic Sen. Barbara Favola saying, “I have to take a breath and think about this.” GOP House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said it would be “reckless” to comment. “There’s just too much flying around,” he said.
Black lawmakers’ response could set the tone for whether fellow Democrats demand the resignation of the lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas said several people were crying as Herring apologized to black lawmakers Wednesday morning before issuing his public statement.
Cox called the allegations against Fairfax “extremely serious” and said they need a “full airing of facts.” The Republican leader also urged Herring to “adhere to the standard he has set for others,” a nod to Herring’s previous call that Northam resign.
On Thursday, a few hundred anti-abortion demonstrators gathered at the Capitol to renew their criticism of Northam for backing a bill loosening restrictions on late-term abortions. One carried a sign referring to Northam as “Gov Doctor Death.”
And in a nod to the scandals facing the Democrats, GOP Sen. Amanda Chase said while leading the crowd in prayer: “The actions that have been taken by our leadership have hurt the very heart of God.”
Democrats have expressed fear that the uproar over the governor could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated Virginia legislature this year after making big gains in 2017.
At the same time, the Democrats nationally have taken a hard line against misconduct in their ranks because women and minorities are a vital part of their base and they want to be able to criticize President Donald Trump’s behavior without looking hypocritical.
Trump accused Democrats on Thursday of a political double-standard, tweeting: “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken.”
Northam has come under pressure from nearly the entire Democratic establishment to resign after the discovery of a photo on his yearbook profile page of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, then denied it, but acknowledged putting shoe polish on his face for a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.
Herring came down hard on Northam when the yearbook photo surfaced, condemning it as “indefensible,” and “profoundly offensive.” He said it was no longer possible for Northam to lead the state.
Warren struggles to move past Native American heritage flap
By ELANA SCHOR
Thursday, February 7
WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Elizabeth Warren is on the verge of launching a presidential campaign that should be all about her vision for the future. But first she has to explain her past.
For the second time in two weeks, the Massachusetts Democrat apologized Wednesday for claiming Native American identity on multiple occasions early in her career. The move followed a report that she listed her race as “American Indian” — in her own handwriting — on a 1986 registration card for the Texas state bar.
By providing fresh evidence that she had personally identified her race, the document resurrected the flap just as she’s trying to gain momentum for her 2020 presidential bid, which she’s expected to formally announce on Saturday. Warren didn’t rule out the possibility of other documents in which she identified as a Native American.
In a Democratic primary already dominated by candidates expressing remorse for past actions, Warren’s repentance stood out, both for the distraction the controversy has become for her candidacy and the complexity of her efforts to move beyond it. While her competitors are fine-tuning their messages and trying to demonstrate competence and polish, Warren has repeatedly opened herself up to criticism by re-litigating the past.
“It’s not exactly how you’d want to enter the arena” as a presidential candidate, said Paulette Jordan, a former Democratic state representative in Idaho and a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe who became the party’s gubernatorial nominee last year. Jordan warned that Warren’s treatment of her heritage raises “a whole lot of questions and doubt” about her integrity: “If you cannot uphold that, then it makes things challenging.”
Questions about Warren’s heritage date to at least 2012, when her Republican opponent seized on the issue during her first Senate campaign to wrongly argue she identified as a Native American to advance her career. President Donald Trump frequently deploys a racial slur to criticize Warren.
Still, Warren has sometimes compounded the problem. In October, she released a DNA analysis that purported to bolster her claims to Native American heritage. Instead, it drew quick criticism from some Native Americans, including a Cherokee Nation official, as insensitive and fumbling.
She apologized in private last week to the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation for “causing confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship and the harm that resulted,” said tribal spokeswoman Julie Hubbard. And after The Washington Post reported on the Texas state bar registration, Warren addressed the issue publicly Wednesday, telling reporters outside her Senate office that her answers in the past were “based on my understanding of my family’s story.”
“I am not a tribal citizen. Tribes, and only tribes, determine citizenship,” Warren said, adding, “I have apologized for not being more sensitive to that distinction. It’s an important distinction.”
The episode threatens to undermine the progress Warren has made since she launched a presidential exploratory committee in December. She was well-received in Iowa, home to the nation’s first caucuses, last month. She’s also appealed to the Democratic base with arguments that wealthy politicians shouldn’t self-fund their campaigns and proposed an “ultra-millionaire tax.”
Warren’s allies are hopeful that she can focus on the substance of her campaign, but they acknowledge she may have more work to do.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, a vocal critic of the double standards facing women who seek executive office, said in an interview that “now, everybody’s being scrutinized” over their pasts.
“There’s a tremendous sensitivity to that, with regard to Elizabeth,” Hirono said, referring to relationships with Native American communities. “She is going to need to address it, deal with it. But she has a lot of other issues that she cares about and has fought for for decades. And I hope people will look at that, too.”
Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the liberal group Justice Democrats, praised Warren’s apology as confidence-building “with people in the Democratic Party electorate who are skeptical about the way she’s handled this issue.” He suggested the flap “could be a moment for her to do a landmark speech” addressing blind spots that have beleaguered white candidates — making a subtle allusion to the racism scandal that is engulfing Virginia’s Democratic leaders.
The GOP is seizing on the moment to sow doubt among voters about Warren. The Republican National Committee filed a formal grievance with Texas bar officials on Wednesday, requesting that Warren be disciplined for making “false claims.”
But it’s unclear whether the controversy will wound Warren with Democratic voters. Some of her primary rivals have also aired regret for their past decisions. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, has disavowed her previously right-leaning approaches to immigration and guns. Others, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, have made more limited attempts to patch perceived trouble spots.
Reuben D’Silva, a Democrat in North Las Vegas, Nevada, and former congressional candidate, said he’s not sure how much the average voter is paying attention to Warren’s apology. But “among primary voters, it seems to be a cause of concern.”
D’Silva, a history teacher whose family is from India, said he could give Warren the benefit of the doubt because he understands that people often don’t have extensive records about their family history.
“But if there’s proof she used this to land jobs or advance her career or maybe profit off it in some way, then maybe that could become a problem,” he added.
Warren reiterated on Wednesday that she did not exact any career benefit from her Native American self-identification. But not every tribal citizen is assuaged.
David Cornsilk, a member of the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, pointed out that Warren had identified as a minority in professional settings beyond the Texas state bar.
“The conclusion I draw is that she may not have gotten benefit from it, but I believe she certainly was trying to,” he said.
Fawn Douglas, a Democratic activist, professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a member of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, said she thought Warren cleared up the matter with her DNA test because she made no formal claim to tribal membership. But Douglas now sees the Texas document as a detriment.
“I really don’t like that further evidence was just introduced after her apology” to the Cherokee Nation, Douglas said. “It’s just one of those smack-my-head kind of moments.”
Douglas said Warren can recover by speaking about issues important to Native American communities, such as tribal sovereignty and missing and slain women.
Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California who’s backing Harris, warned that the distraction would likely follow her to the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But, he said, “every story is an opportunity for you, the candidate, to have a conversation with the voters.”
Not to mention, he added, Warren’s issues are “nothing like the problems the Democrats are having in Virginia,” where the state’s top Democrats are engulfed in scandal over racism and sexual misconduct.
Associated Press reporters Michelle Price in Las Vegas; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz.; Meg Kinnard in Clemson, S.C.; Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles; and Michael Biesecker in Washington contributed to this report.